Isobel* playing in asylum centre. Photo by Tatjana Ristić, Save the Children
“I am so happy that I’m 9 years old. I would never want to be 10 or 11!” said Isabel* triumphantly after the facilitators separated children in two groups for activities in the child friendly space on that day. Older children were to do their homework, while the younger ones were allowed to go outside and play. And there is nothing that Isabel likes better than when she gets to do what she feels like doing in the moment. As an assertive girl, Isabel rarely misses an opportunity to make a quirky comment and turn the situation to her own advantage.
It’s not that she doesn’t like studying or doing her homework. Quite the contrary, Isabel talks appreciatively about the school and the time she spends there. “School is interesting. We learn mathematics, Serbian, arts, and we do sports. I am good at everything,” said the girl confidently. It doesn’t come as a surprise that she would like to be a teacher when she grows up. This bright-eyed, witty and outspoken girl, with her signature hairstyle – the hair beautifully braided in small plaits - is easy to be imagined standing in front of the class, holding the attention of the students by telling them captivating stories. “The teacher should be nice, not somebody yelling at children. The teacher should come to the class and say: ‘Hello, how are you today? Please listen to me carefully,’” explained the girl.
Isabel and her parents left Cuba in late 2017 and arrived in Serbia. The family asked for asylum. They found a temporary shelter in the asylum centre in Bogovadja, a small settlement two hours away from Serbian capital Belgrade. Isabel, who grew up with plenty of sun, saw snow for the first time in her life. “I don’t like snow,” says Isabel, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “It’s cold and wet, you need to wear a lot of clothes or you’ll get ill, and you have to stay inside a lot.” But what about building snowmen and decorating for the New Year or Christmas? “You don’t need snow to build a snowman” says Isabel like it’s self-explanatory. “I can always make one out of modelling clay, or cotton wool. And you don’t need snow to decorate a tree! We could do it now, there’s nothing stopping us.”
Admitting that she doesn’t like snow is as far as Isabel goes when sharing how she feels about the challenges of leaving home and arriving to an unknown place, and having to start a new life. When asked about it, the expression of her cheerful, bright brown eyes changes, but Isabel firmly claims that she’s perfectly fine with everything related to her family’s journey, and that even staying in the asylum centre, where the three of them don’t have anything but one small room at their disposal, doesn’t bother her much. She does say that she doesn’t look forward to school holidays: “I prefer going to school than staying in the centre for the whole day”.
Save the Children in Bogovadja run programmes in partnership with the local NGO, Group 484. The team met Isabel on her first days in the asylum centre. She came into the child friendly space like she had always been there, and instantly won the hearts of everyone working in the space. Her presence during the workshops for refugee, migrant and asylum seeking children, aiming to support them in challenging circumstances and give them an opportunity to learn and play, changed the dynamics of the group. With Isabel in the room, there was always at least one person who cracked jokes or questioned the order of things.
“I think it’s important to say when you disagree with something”, says Isabel. “The things shouldn’t be as they are only because someone who is grown up said so.”
Supported by the team in the child friendly space, Isabel was enrolled in the local school “Milan Dubljevic”, where she became a good student and made a lot of friends. Friendship is high on Isabel’s list. For her, the friendship is not limited to people only – while staying in the asylum centre, the girl took care of dogs that wondered around without having a particular home they belong to, bringing them food and playing with them with heart-warming attentiveness. “Dogs are the same as people”, Isabel said with perfect conviction. “They walk on four legs, we walk on two, they eat from the ground and we eat from the plate, they have fur, we have the hair. When they want to drink milk, they go to their mother and we have to go to the shop to buy some. This is how they are different, but otherwise, we are the same.”
Isobel* with her friend Milica* in school. Photo by Marija Janković, Save the Children
After one year and five months of being in the asylum procedure, Isabel’s family was informed that they have been granted asylum. The decision came both as a relief and a burden. “We thought it was difficult to wait for the decision because the future was uncertain, but it turned out that it doesn’t get any easier now” shared Isobel’s mother, Valeria, before the family left the asylum centre to start anew and face the challenges of a new life. “But I am so proud of Isabel because she is so strong and she manages to do her best even in difficult circumstances,” she said.
When asked if she was strong, Isabel made a funny face and said in a childish voice, sinking in her chair: “No, I’m not. I’m completely weak!” When asked to do an arm wrestling challenge, she said: “Okay, but only if you don’t let me win because I’m a child!” and fought with determination of a grown up.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of individuals.