The Place of Love and Refuge

‘’I have friends and I love to play with them, but I don’t like when they tell me that I am a migrant. I just want to be one of them, I want to be accepted.’’

Simona Ružnić for UNICEF
Bilal writing homework in his home
09 March 2021

Bilal* is a 10-year-old boy from Iran currently situated in a small border village close to Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He left his home country three years ago with his father. His father is a single parent as Bilal’s mother left them soon after he was born. They were forced to flee Iran due to persecution on ethnic grounds. Upon arrival to Bosnia and Herzegovina, they had no idea where to go or what to do so they decided to follow in the footsteps of other passengers. 

‘’ I saw other migrants buying the bus tickets to this village, which is very close to the border with Croatia. So, I bought two tickets as well. We attempted to cross the border on the very first night, but Bilal got sick with fever, and we had to stay here. For three weeks we slept in an abandoned house. Even though it was summer, the nights were so cold, and we didn’t have anything. I used an old rug to cover Bilal while he slept.’’ – recalls Bilal’s father.  

Out of nearly 6000 migrants/asylum seekers, currently accommodated in temporary reception centers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 900 are children. UNICEF with its implementing partners and through collaboration with Centers for Social Welfare provides 24/7 care and support services for children in designated zones. It is estimated that another 2700 migrants/asylum seekers, 100 of whom are children,  sleep rough with no access to other accommodation. 

During the third week of Bilal’s stay in the village, one of the locals who lives abroad generously offered them to settle at his home. With the assistance of local people, Bilal was enrolled in school and his father did various wage jobs to support them.  

With Bilal’s loving and amiable nature, they soon gained considerable popularity in the village. One of the locals who Bilal grew very fond of was Lejla, the local hairdresser. After coming to her home for a haircut, the boy who obviously missed a mother figure in his life, suggested to Lejla that she should have married his father. 

‘’I don’t speak English but by Bilal’s hand gestures I understood what he meant when he said: ‘’You should marry my baba’’, Lejla laughingly recalls. 

Soon after the cold winter arrived, but the house in which Bilal and his father stayed did not have any heating system. Even though they had a roof over their heads, the cold was unbearable. Lejla, who lived alone with her mother, would often invite them for a coffee or lunch. Even though the two of them lived in a very humble, small home, they offered Bilal and his father a spare room during the winter season. 

‘’Slowly we started communicating, mostly by gestures and after a while, a love was born.’’, says Lejla describing the beginning of her relationship with Bilal’s father. They welcomed the following winter as a family. 

Bilal is currently enrolled in the third grade of primary school. He loves all subjects, but his favorite ones are mathematics and physical education. He loves cars and trucks and he would love to become a car mechanic one day. 

‘’I can recognize all the cars in the village by their license plates’’, Bilal boasts of his good memory, ‘’I can also recognize them by the sound that engine makes.’’ 

Six months after the influx of first refugees and migrants to Bosnia and Herzegovina, public schools opened doors for refugee and migrant children. Even though the enrolment of refugee and migrant children proved challenging at first, UNICEF reached an agreement with the Ministry of Education and thus enabled 636 refugee and migrant children to enter formal education system. UNICEF also supports children like Bilal in terms of clothing and school supplies. 

When asked about friends, Bilal sighs: ‘’I have friends and I love to play with them, but I don’t like when they tell me that I am a migrant. I just want to be one of them, I want to be accepted.’’ 

Bilal and his father are currently in the asylum seeking process in Bosnia and Herzegovina, awaiting a final decision on whether Bilal, who definitely is “one of us”, will become officially “accepted”.     

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of children.