This is the story of Mustafa, an Iranian boy whose carefree childhood was interrupted by the government’s brutality towards his father, his sole transgression being the support of the opposition leader at the elections. This is the story of Ali, Mustafa’s father and a formerly renowned neurosurgeon, a man who spent several years in a prison for political criminals because of a poster of the opposing politician in his clinic, who was stripped of his work license only for thinking differently. However, this is also the story about Igor, the man who, through providence, acted as Mustafa’s guardian in Serbia, and of Jasmina, a kindergarten teacher at the home for children without parental care Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj, a branch of the Zvečanska Institute, in which Mustafa lived for over two years.

”Mustafa’s life story is akin to a movie about the fall from grace of a respected civilian family in Tehran. Even though his parents were divorced, Mustafa had a happy childhood – he lived with his father, he maintained contact with his mother, he visited his grandparents, he has friends at school and a good life…”, says Igor Milikić, Mustafa’s guardian during the boy’s stay in Serbia.

Ali’s political activism for the opposition was the start of a dangerous game which put not only Ali’s life at risk, but also that of his then-thirteen-year-old son. When he was named public enemy by the acting government, it became clear they needed leave Iran as soon as possible. Ali’s decision to change his faith and become a Christian was another reason for the persecution. Their life suddenly became fraught with uncertainty – travelling via smuggler networks, numerous dangers on the way, chronic exhaustion, all of which took a serious psychological toll… Until 2017, when Ali and Mustafa finally arrived in Serbia. The first stop – reception center in Bujanovac.

”However, Mustafa’s father realized that he was swindled by the Turkish smugglers, so he decided to return to Istanbul. He then also determined that the safest course of action for his son was for him to stay in Serbia. The boy went to Miksalište, stating that he was alone in Serbia, and he was soon placed into the Centre for Minors in Vodovodska. I met him there even before I became his guardian”, Igor recalls and points out that the boy had inquired on a few occasions if he would get a guardian and who that guardian would be. ”Very soon, the hand of fate pushed me into becoming his guardian and to witness a rare refugee story that has a happy ending. I hope I can take some of the credit for that…”, Igor humbly continued.

”I introduced myself, we exchanged contact information and I told him he could call me about anything he needs, anytime. At first, the boy was confused by the precarious circumstances he found himself in. Only those who’ve lived through it know what it’s like to live alone in a strange country. He was particularly dumbfounded to hear that his father had managed to reach Belgium, that he was planning on requesting asylum and start the family reunification process there”, explains Igor.

Igor’s time with his protege was not limited to their formal visitations at the Centre. Igor recalls the two of them enjoying a bowling alley, walking on Kalemegdan and going for tea and sweets.

”We were slowly building trust. Mustafa took my advice to request asylum in Serbia even before the family reunification process started. In the meantime, he resumed his education, as it was essential for him to learn the Serbian language, get to know the culture and make new friends. His turning point in Serbia was moving to the Jovan Jovanović Zmaj Orphanage and enrolling at the school of the same name”, says Igor.

”I explained the situation to the headmistress and Mustafa’s teachers and I told them about the issues faced by unaccompanied minors in Serbia. I told them about his native country, the way of life there… Together, we came up with a plan for individual work with the boy, his inclusion and support at school”, continued Igor and expressed his surprise at the positive reactions and the initiative that the school’s employees took to help the boy overcome obstacles and find acceptance among his peers.

It was already on his first day at the orphanage known as “Zmaj” that Mustafa met someone who would practically become his family in Serbia – the teacher Jasmina.

”We spent the first few days “getting the feel”, getting to know each other. Right from the beginning, Mustafa showed a need for intimacy. Unfortunately, very few children from social protection institutions manage to bond with anyone outside the orphanage and they spend most of their time with us, the employees. However, Mustafa managed to forge friendships outside the orphanage, despite all obstacles”, says his teacher Jasmina Nenadić.

Jasmina was among his key stanchions in continuation of schooling. She helped him study and regularly encouraged him to attend English and Serbian language lessons. She points out that having laptops, tablets and other teaching props at kids’ disposal at the orphanage made the process significantly smoother. Having numerous civilian organisations holding various workshops, offering psychological support and language lessons was also invaluable.

”Our greatest challenge was holding online lessons during the state of emergency, particularly the lessons on Cyrillic. My colleagues and I helped all the children overcome the language barriers and achieve good results at school. When I talk about Mustafa, the first thing I think of is his need to be engaged outside the school-organised activities, to work or volunteer. And so, as soon as it was possible, he found a job in a fast food restaurant, all on his own, and he was such a diligent worker despite his young age that he swiftly forged a strong friendship with his employers. It’s safe to say they’ve accepted him like a member of their own family”, the teacher Jasmina recalls and adds that Mustafa’s excitement over his employment and his friendship with the owners of the restaurant was short-lived due to the start of the pandemic.

Having finished primary school and with his guardian’s and teacher’s support, Mustafa went on to enroll at a textile design high school. By that point he had mastered the Serbian language so well that, having filed his asylum application, he conducted half of his interview with the Asylum Office in Serbian.

”He has only to finish secondary school in Serbia”, Mustafa’s former guardian smiles and says that the boy has finished primary school, was granted asylum and even had his first love here.

Luckily, the boy’s father was soon granted asylum in Belgium and the family reunification process is going faster than either the teacher or the guardian had anticipated, but also the boy’s legal representative Nikolina Milić from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights.

”Mustafa’s father filed a request for family reunification with the proper institution in Belgium, and the communication was partly conducted through the Belgian Embassy in Belgrade. The legal representative and I visited the Embassy with the boy several times, where he was interviewed, fingerprinted, etc. However, this May we received a rejection on the grounds that Mustafa and Ali hadn’t provided the sufficient documentation to prove they are indeed father and son”, says Igor.

They immediately requested a DNA test to prove their relationship and Brussels soon made the official decision to reunite Mustafa with his father in Belgium. The time came for Mustafa to part with his beloved friends in Serbia, who had practically been his second family. His teacher Jasmina and his former employers saw him to the airport.

”Sadly, we didn’t have much time to say our goodbyes due to some minor administrative issues between the border police and Asylum Office”, recalls Jasmina. Smiling, she says that everyone at the airport had been immeasurably kind and willing to help Mustafa find his way back to the father he hadn’t been able to see for several years.

”He called me to tell me he’d got there safely and he thanked me. I reminded him to be persistent and dauntless in life to make his dreams come true. Like any teacher, naturally, I took that last opportunity to “lecture” him on the importance of continuing his education”, grins Jasmina.

Finally, Serbia was not just a temporary stop for Mustafa on his long, dolorous journey, but a second home, and his guardian, teacher and even his former employers – a second family. They’re all hoping to meet again soon, under happier circumstances.

The Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs has been providing expert, staffing and financial support to social protection institutions in their work with refugee and migrant population through the EU-funded project ”EU Support to Migration Management in Serbia – Improvement of Accommodation Capacities, Social Protection and Access to Education”. The Centres for Social Work, as a guardianship authority, is in charge of care of social services beneficiaries, decision-making on the enjoyment of social services, executing the duties of guardianship bodies, deciding on placement of mintors, appointing guardians to minors and deciding on their best interest in all the procedures involving the minors.

*The names of the boy and his father have been changed for identity protection purposes.