Afghan teenagers in Serbian school dream of a better world

After travelling thousands of kilometres in search of peace, a refugee family gets a new beginning

By UNICEF Serbia
An Afghan teenage girl laughing
UNICEF Serbia/Vas
15 August 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia, 15 August 2017 – “I sleep, you sleep, he sleeps... We sleep, you sleep, they sleep.” Shabnam, 13, slowly conjugates the verb in a language that until recently had been completely foreign and incomprehensible to her.

Her teacher nods approvingly. Mohamad, her older brother, sits next to her visibly proud.

Shabnam and Mohamad’s mother passed away, but their father waits for them every day after school to hear about the new things they’ve learned. The three of them travelled thousands of kilometres from Afghanistan, so the children could have a chance to go to school and live in peace.

It wasn't easy. They kept moving from one country and refugee camp to another. Sometimes they would sleep out in the open. But right now they are in an asylum centre in Belgrade, Serbia.

Brother and sister in a school in Serbia
UNICEF Serbia/Vas
Shabnam learns Serbian with her brother Mohamad
Back in school

Like many children from conflict-torn countries, Shabnam has been out of school for a while. She has spent her days in the camps, occasionally reading a book she found along the way.

However, when she starts talking, you can see peace and focus in her eyes. She knows what she wants out of life.

Shabnam says she is thankful for the opportunity to learn; she knows how important education is for achieving dreams.

"Through learning I can fulfil my dreams. We came to Serbia for education in the first place and when I heard I would start going to school I was very excited," she says.

She shares her school days with children from Serbia. There are no differences between them.

"There are two Ivas, then Katarina and Branka. I still haven't memorized the names of the others," she says with a smile.

Students at school in Serbia
UNICEF Serbia/Vas
Children from conflict affected countries learn together with children from Serbia
Giving back

Shabnam wants to repay the country that has welcomed her. “You … have to do something for the society you currently live in. You cannot just come with empty hands and leave with empty hands,” she says. “You should definitely learn something and give something back to the society and, just like the society is providing me with knowledge, when I grow up, I want to give something back to the society."

She and her brother want to use knowledge to make this a better world to live in.

If you ask Shabnam how she will achieve that, she has a ready answer – "I will practice law, I will be a lawyer".

Shabnam has a dream. There is no doubt that she will give it all she's got to make it come true. For now, she's practicing what comes before that – conjugation.

"I sleep, you sleep, he sleeps..."

Right to education

UNICEF, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development and the Centre for Education Policy, runs a project to support the education of refugee and migrant children in Serbia. 

Shabnam’s school is one of 10 in Serbia that have welcomed refugee and migrant children. Everyone is provided with transportation to school, interpreters and school supplies.

Shabnam and many other children living in refugee and migrant reception centres, including unaccompanied and separated children, can now realize their right to education – the right of every child.