Ferhana*, photo by Velija Hasanbegović, Save the Children
Three years after leaving Afghanistan with her parents and her four siblings, 13-years-old Ferhana* found herself alone with her mother Madina* in Bihac, a small town in the Una-Sana Canton in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). In a former student dormitory turned to a refugee centre, Ferhana* and her mother share a tiny room with a family from Iran, a woman with one daughter who also got separated from the rest of their family.
“I miss my father, my brother and my sisters every day. I wish we were all together”, says Ferhana* sadly. Ferhana*’s family arrived in BiH from Serbia, where they spent almost two years. They were hoping to be admitted to Hungary and seek asylum there, which is one of the rare regular ways for refugees and migrants in Serbia to continue their journey. While they were waiting to move up on the lengthy waiting list for asylum seekers staying in Serbia, Ferhana* and her siblings were enrolled in the local school with support of Save the Children and partners. “Going to school helped me feel better”, says Ferhana* remembering her days in Serbia, “but the whole family started being very depressed because the time went by and we didn’t know what is going to happen to us. That’s why we decided to take a risk and go to BiH in the summer of 2018”.
Over 60,000 refugees and migrants arrived in BiH since the beginning of 2018 until the beggining of 2020, hoping to continue their journey towards Western Europe through Croatia. Over 8,000 people remain stranded in BiH, with over 6,000 persons staying in the Una-Sana Canton, situated in the North West of the country at the very border with Croatia. Authorities have been facing an increased pressure to respond to the needs of high number of refugees and migrants arriving in the canton, particularly in towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa. Aiming to ensure that children arriving in BiH are supported and protected, Save the Children launched a refugee response programme, working together with UNICEF to ensure that system is in place for protection and for refugee boys and girls to have access to education.
According to Ferhana*, the family felt better in BiH. She and her school-aged siblings enrolled into local school, supported by the education team run by Save the Children and UNICEF. The team escorts children to school, provides school meals, assists with translation, school tasks and homework. In parallel, the team works with parents, organizing workshops and occupational activities to help them overcome the challenges of their situation and the stress they experience.
Although exhausted, the family couldn’t really see themselves starting a new life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As Ferhana* says, they didn’t know anyone who was seeking asylum there and didn’t hear encouraging, success stories about refugee families staying in BiH. Therefore, they have decided to try to continue the journey and started going to “the game”, as the refugees and migrants refer to attempts of irregularly crossing the border.
“We tried so many times to cross to Croatia”, says Ferhana, “it must be 15, 16 times in all. We were continually turned back by the Croatian police. They never asked if we were refugees and didn’t want to hear if we wanted to seek asylum. Many times the police were violent. They yelled at people, beat them, and made them take their clothes off. They made children undress, women undress, told them even to take off their bra, searching for telephones and money, which they often took away from people. Sometimes they broke the telephones.”
As many of her peers, children who were forced to leave their homes searching for better life, Ferhana* is admiringly courageous in the face of the adversity of the refugee journey. “One time a border guard raised his stick to beat us. I yelled at him, saying that it was illegal to beat families and children. He got angry and wanted to hit me. His face was covered with a balaclava, but he had a badge on his shirt with his name on it. ‘I saw your name,’ I said, “and I will tell everyone, the media, and the humanitarian organizations, that it was you who hurt me.’ I think I managed to scare him since he stopped and turned away from me”, says Ferhana*.
During one of the border crossing attempts, the smugglers separated the family in two cars, promising that this gave them better chances to reach Western Europe. The police intercepted the car with Ferhana, her mother, brother, and two younger sisters. Ferhana’s father and two older sisters managed to reach Germany.
“After we returned, my mother became very ill and we couldn’t continue trying to cross the border anymore. My 13-year-old brother became very miserable. One morning I realized that he started to cut himself when I accidentally saw his arms, full of new and old scars. He begged my mother to let him go and take the younger children with him. She didn’t have much choice and she let him go with another family. They are in Slovenia now,” says Ferhana*.
The family separation and being left alone with her mother, who is ill, impacted Ferhana* a lot. Once a very dedicated student, she seemed to have lost her motivation for school. Feeling that she needs to support her mother, the girl stayed in the refugee centre, missing classes.
Noticing her struggles, the education team offered to help Madina* during the day so Ferhana* could attend classes. The team makes sure that the girl’s mother takes her lunch and her medicine and has someone to talk to.
“Somehow, when I am in school with other children, things get into my head no matter how I feel,” says Ferhana*, “but at one point I lost interest in going to school. I was unhappy, I didn’t want to learn. Knowing that I have someone by my side helped me not to give up.
Ferhana* with Save the Children's cultural mediator, photo by Velija Hasanbegović, Save the Children