Asim: like a father to many
Refugees left alone in the cold
Asim remembers them well, the first refugees who stepped into his shop a few years ago. 'They were young people and families with children, who did not have enough blankets or clothes to protect themselves from the cold.' They asked him for water and an outlet to charge their phones before heading into the inhospitable mountains along the Croatian border.
'Those first nights I lay awake thinking about what I had seen', Asim continues. 'I could and had to do something. Unable to accommodate them in my small shop, I threw a tangle of telephone cords out of a window. Groups of people stood on the street beside my shop charging their phones, until the police forbade it. "The street is a public space", they said.' Asim grins. 'So I decided to install the telephone connections in my own shop, where the police could not say anything about it.'
A safe and welcome haven
Asim installed dozens of charging points between the shelves of food in his shop. He then called his friends and asked them to bring unused clothes and blankets. He set up a storage place and, in the following weeks, built up a collection of goods. And so Asims 'mini-mission' slowly began: his shop became a place where refugees can 'recharge' their phones as well as themselves as they prepare for their journey towards the notorious and violent Croatian border: A journey that takes them through an almost impenetrable mountain region littered with landmines. A leftover from the Yugoslav Civil War.
Eleven mobile phones and power banks are charging between shelves full of eggs, rice and flour. When their owners collect them and prepare to go into the 'jungle' (as they call the mountain region), they will tell 'Baba Asim' what they need: most often food, sleeping bags or shoes.
Vestiges of the Yugoslav Civil War are still visible in the streets of Bihać: many houses have bullet holes in the walls, and many ruins and houses have been abandoned since 1995. The passing refugees often use these as temporary squats.
There are more people who help refugees in this little border town, but they don’t do this as openly as Asim, explains a local partner organization of the Dutch Council for Refugees. Helping refugees is not without danger, and fellow residents and the local police threaten him with repercussions. But Asim is not afraid of possible violence, he says. 'I lived through the war and survived. Since that time, I’m no longer afraid of anything. Besides, I'm not doing anything illegal: no one can forbid me to help these people.'
'People like you and me'
Asim has lost many customers in recent years and still faces daily opposition from the police, but that doesn’t stop him. 'While everyone is turning their backs on these people, I want them to feel that they are still human. They are people just like you and me. I see young people who are the same age as my children. Two of my sons live in Germany, what if they were treated the same way? I couldn't live with myself if I did nothing.'
Asim has noticed some improvement since international media began shining a light on the horrific events around the Croatian border and this small mountain town. 'Before then, there was complete darkness in this town. Squats were set on fire and people attacked refugees in the streets. But Croats and Bosnians are afraid of international press and a possible bad image. That’s why it’s so important that these stories continue to be told.'