21.12.2023. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when we think of refugees? What a hard time they
must have had at home, how huge their everyday problems were when they decided to leave
everything behind and venture into an unknown and faraway world. At what point they realised
that the life they were living was undignified, decided to cross thousands of miles, bid farewell
to their country, their family and friends, not to return ever again. How courageous and
persistent they have been to take that decision, how their fear of the immediate outweighed
their fear of the unknown and of the distant.

The media can give us a vague idea picture of life in a refugee-generating country. We gather that
a war is ranging somewhere far away, that people are fleeing, searching for a better life for
themselves and their loved ones. But can we imagine what it’s like for someone living in a country
where neither his community nor the relevant bodies have any understanding for his needs, for
his state of health, the difficulties he faces and do not extend him even minimum support to
satisfy his needs? Can we imagine how difficult the life of a wheelchair user must have been when
he decided to set off on the long, uncertain and difficult journey?
That is the story of our Saliou. He left Cameroon and headed for faraway Serbia, a country he did
not know at all. He came because persons with disabilities are in dire straits in his mother country.
Society’s discrimination and carelessness he had been exposed to on a daily basis were just too
much to bear and, at one point, Saliiou decided he could no longer live such a life. His health was
so poor that leaving his fatherland was his only salvation. And he found such salvation in Serbia.
He came here in 2018. That’s when his persistent everyday struggle to live a better and happier
life began.
Saliou succeeded in resolving and overcoming the many problems and obstacles he faced in
Serbia. His integration in Serbia’s society began when he was granted asylum in July 2021; the
Belgrade Centre for Human Rights represented him in the process. Saliou then started (and still
is) working in Ikea. He got an opportunity many persons with disabilities unfortunately do not get
– the chance to work, a right all of us have. Although he has difficulty moving around in his
wheelchair, he has been actively contributing to the company and participating in the business
challenges on an equal footing. Recognising his efforts and commitment to work, his coworkers
in Ikea tapped into the solidarity fund and bought him a new wheelchair, allowing him to move
around more easily.
Saliou had not finished primary school in his country of origin. He got his second chance to obtain
an education in Serbia. He attended the Branko Pešić adult education school and completed the
requisite formal education. Mastering Serbian was one of the more difficult challenges Saliou
faced, but he now speaks it fluently. Saliou is a paralympic and takes an active part in athletics,
basketball and sharpshooting. He has toured large parts of Serbia, which he has grown fond of,
as a member of the Zemun Polje wheelchair basketball club Despot. Saliou has to undergo dialysis
three times a week, another challenge he faces bravely and on his own. He goes to his dialysis
treatments on his own, after work and then returns to the Krnjača Asylum Centre, where he lives,
all on his own. He has been trying to move into private lodgings for a year now, but has had
trouble finding an apartment. Landlords hang up on him as soon as they hear that he is a refugee,
a “black” from Africa, plus in a wheelchair. They want nothing to do with him. He understands
that. People are different and they don’t know him, he consoles himself, convinced that people
are kind and want to help him.
With the help of BCHR’s integration team, Saliou was the first refugee in Serbia to exercise his
right to a disability allowance. He is also the first refugee to exercise his right to a personal
assistant and his right to transportation for persons with disabilities – he is provided with
transportation from Krnjača to the bus station in New Belgrade every day. Saliou used to take the
bus from one end of the city to the other to get to work. He would sometimes wait for hours at
the station for a wheelchair accessible bus he could board. On occasion, he would sometimes go
back to the Asylum Centre because such a bus never came. His commute to work took two hours,
but he never gave up unless he had to. He never complained that he was having a hard time or
that his job was far away. Or that he was tired. His job has provided him with the chance to work
and be financially independent, to feel that he is a useful and equal member of society, to leave
the Asylum Centre and socialise with his co-workers, to live a “normal” life.

Saliou had no income before he started working and was granted domiciliary care. He was
provided with medications by the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration in the Krnjača
Asylum Centre, as well as with food; his friends in Serbia supplied him with everything else he
needed. Saliou has many friends in Serbia, who want to help him and ease his situation.
Employed, financially independent and enjoying adequate healthcare and social protection,
Saliou has been living a much better and higher quality life than he did before July 2021. He feels
he is part of the community, that he has support, and that’s what he needs for a stable
and peaceful life. His dream – to move out of the Asylum Centre, to find an apartment equipped
with furniture and things from the company he is working in, in which he will live alone and be
able to host all his friends. Around this time last year, he told me his only wish was to rent an
apartment and become fully independent.
Are all stories difficult? As our dear friend Saliou says when I ask him how he’s doing: “Good”
“Little good” and “It’ll be good”. Saliou is never having it bad, he’s always having it good. He’s
always hoping and aspiring for the better. He’s fighting for himself and for a happier life here in
Serbia. He’s not having an easy time, far from it, but he’s not giving up.

Written by
Andrijana Miljković
BCHR Integration Adviser