|Farhad Nouri, second from right, who is nicknamed Little Picasso, with his family in a refugee center in Krnjaca, Serbia. Photo by Marko Risovic, courtesy The New York Times.|
In a shabby refugee center on the outskirts of Belgrade, an Afghan artist nicknamed Little Picasso spends his days sketching and dreaming while living in limbo, seemingly immune to the deepening sense of hopelessness and despair all around him.
The artist, Farhad Nouri, a 10-year-old boy who lives with his parents and two younger brothers in a small room at a former Yugoslav military barracks that houses more than 600 migrants and refugees, has been celebrated in Serbia and beyond. Fans speak of his extraordinary artistic ability. He had his first exhibition this month, organized by the Refugees Foundation, a group based in Belgrade.
But the story of Farhad — a smart, lanky boy with and a quick smile — is more than an unexpected bright spot in grim circumstances. It shines a light on forgotten asylum seekers and suggests the untold potential lost among migrants stranded along the Balkan route to Western Europe.
“Farhad is such a striking example of all the talent and human potential that is being wasted and put on hold among these thousands of people who are stranded,” said Elinor Raikes, the European regional director of the International Rescue Committee.
“You can’t overestimate the extent to which having zero control and zero ownership over your own future will affect your psychosocial well being,” she said.
The Nouris are among the 4,700 asylum seekers who the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates are living in Serbia. While Europe offers no clear avenues for asylum seekers to find a future in the West, the Balkan governments are still largely treating them as temporary residents.
As Farhad and his family wait to plot their future in another country — perhaps Germany, Switzerland or Sweden, his father says — they have been thrust into a whirlwind of publicity in Serbia.
|Some of Farhad’s artwork in the family room. He says he wants to learn animation next. Photo by Marko Risovic, courtesy The New York Times.|
Farhad’s first exhibition was held this month in a Belgrade cafe. He sold photos he had taken and 20 scanned copies of his drawings to raise 34,000 Serbian dinars, or about $335, for a boy from Belgrade, Nemanja Damcevic, who was recovering after having surgery to remove a brain tumor. He also sold 11 of 12 original drawings to raise about $735 for his own family.
The Serbian pop star Svetlana Raznatovic, whose stage name is Ceca, visited Farhad at the asylum center to buy his art. In the spring, he befriended the American actor Mandy Patinkin.
On Wednesday, he and his family were invited to visit the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic. Farhad presented Mr. Vucic with a framed stylized portrait he had drawn of him. Mr. Vucic, in turn, offered Serbian citizenship to Farhad’s family if they chose to stay in the country.
“If you see the future here in Serbia, consider yourself welcome in our country,” Mr. Vucic told the boy as about a dozen journalists looked on.
Farhad, speaking in slow and careful Serbian, thanked the country for helping his family. “I want to live in Serbia,” he said. “We feel good in Serbia.”
Farhad was born in Isfahan, Iran. His father, Hakim Nouri, 33, was a teenager when he fled Herat, Afghanistan, after the Taliban took control. His family left Iran two years ago because of growing pressure against Afghans by the Iranian government.
The family traveled through Turkey to Greece, where Farhad took drawing classes in a refugee center. A Swiss woman there was so moved by his art that she helped support the boy and his family financially, the Nouris said.
The Nouris made it to Serbia in December, and Farhad began school. He said he had Serbian friends and had never been treated badly here for being Afghan. It was much worse for Afghans in Iran, he said.
A recent visit to the family’s room at the refugee center found Farhad smiling, playful and curious, sitting next to his father on a bed. Mr. Nouri, a soft-spoken plasterer, said the family was comfortable in Serbia and happy with the education and services for the children. But, he said, the family’s future was somewhere else: Western Europe.
Farhad, too young to understand the deep anxiety of his parents, contradicted his father. “It’s a mistake,” he said teasingly. “We want to stay in Serbia.”
Why? “Because the president of Serbia invited me to stay and I don’t want to tell him ‘no,’” he said with a smile, wiping his hands together as if the matter were settled.
But there are not many good long-term options even for those who choose a life in Serbia. Of the 1,857 asylum applications submitted since 2013, only 83 were granted asylum or given another form of protected status. And with legal options for crossing borders greatly restricted over the last two years, many migrants risk violence and robbery by seeking help from human traffickers and smugglers.
According to advocates, the Serbian government has greatly increased its ability to provide basic needs for migrants. In 2015, the country had five asylum centers with a capacity to house 800 people. Serbia now has 18 centers with a capacity of 6,000. But the institutional shift toward treating migrants as more than temporary has only just begun.
“As this crisis has become protracted and chronic, it’s now time to turn to secondary needs, to get more kids into schools, to support adults in skill trainings, informal education activities and job preparedness,” said Ms. Raikes of the International Rescue Committee.
The uncertainty faced by refugees has created enormous stress for refugees, including Farhad’s mother.
“It’s exhausting and depressing,” said his mother, Jamila Nouri, 27, smiling weakly. Even after eight months in Serbia, she said, “we still feel like we are traveling and in danger. We feel so nervous and tired of this life.”
But Farhad shows few signs of the ordeal his family has gone through. He says he wants to learn animation. “I don’t feel like I’m waiting,” he said. “I’m just thinking about the future of my family.”
Via The New York Times