BELGRADE, Serbia – The only time Ibrahim Ishaq had ever heard about Serbia was when its soccer team played against his native Ghana during 2010 World Cup. The Serbs lost the match on a late penalty and Ishaq promptly forgot all about the unknown country on a different continent.
Six years later, he hopes that Serbia will become his new home.
Ishaq left his West African homeland three years ago looking for a happier life elsewhere, a journey that eventually brought him to the Balkan country that has been at the heart of the European migration crisis. Serbia lies smack on the migrant corridor where hundreds of thousands of people passed through last year in hopes of reaching Western Europe.
Most newcomers immediately move on toward wealthy European Union nations such as Germany, Austria or Sweden. Ishaq, however, is among a handful of migrants choosing to try their luck in less obvious places such as impoverished, postwar non-EU Serbia.
"I never knew what Serbia is. I never knew where Serbia is," said the 19-year-old with black dreadlocks, smiling broadly. "But in this country they are good to me. I want to stay here and start my life and see what will happen."
While cases like his remain a rarity, experts said they could soon multiply as the 28 EU countries seek to cap the massive refugee influx by imposing tighter entry rules. Already, hundreds of migrants have been sent back from Serbia, first to Macedonia and then on to Greece. Angry and desperate, many of them likely will try to come back with the help of smugglers.
Mounting entry restrictions further north have already left thousands stranded in the Balkans, roaming borders along the route to see a backdoor way to enter the EU. With their choices narrowing, migrants could opt to stay in the Balkans rather than turn back, said Rados Djurovic of the Asylum Protection Center, which has been offering free legal help to asylum-seekers.
"People who believe they cannot continue or win asylum in the West often try in Serbia," he said. "Current developments on the Balkan route, various deals among the states, tensions and ping pong played with the people on the route, indicate Serbia likely will have to accept a certain number of people."
On average, 100 to 150 people file formal asylum requests in Serbia per year, he said — a trickle compared to more than 600,000 migrants who traveled across the Balkan nation in 2015. Djurovic criticized what he described as Serbia's lengthy and complicated asylum procedures, designed to discourage rather than attract people to the country, where unemployment remains widespread as Serbia struggles to recover after the wars of the 1990s.
"Serbia is really a beginner in the ways of migration. Only a few (migrants) are determined enough to put up with all the challenges," Djurovic said.
Serbian police said 24 asylum requests already have been filed this year, with more likely to follow. Similar numbers have been reported in Croatia and Slovenia further along up the route, but authorities there said they didn't expect the numbers to rise.
While waiting for a decision on his asylum request, Ishaq is living in a dismal refugee center on the outskirts of Belgrade, the Serbian capital. To pass the time, he volunteers with authorities to help other migrants and plays football with a local club, earning the nickname Maradona. The cheerful youth has learned basic Serbian at language classes in the camp and made a host of friends, becoming somewhat of a local celebrity.
"Being in a country that does not have money doesn't mean that your life is not good," Ishaq said. "Life is all about people that you have around you."
Fahim Mudei from Somalia, another refugee in Serbia, wholeheartedly agreed. Eight months ago he tried to go to the EU, but said he faced "problems with the weather, with the border, with everything." Like Ishaq, the 20-year-old Mudei has been slowly building a life here, including going to the gym, learning the language and helping out.
"Now it's good I am in Serbia," he said.
Mudei has been granted a one-year provisional protection period, but he hopes to be able to stay on and study political science. He says one day he may return to Somalia or he might go somewhere else. He has a message for fellow Somalis still at home.
"I want to say: Leave the gun, take the pen," he said. "I want to change people's minds. I want to be hero in my country."