Stories of Change

Café 16 is a social enterprise operated by the Centre For Youth Integration with CWS support.

A Family of Friends for a Young Transgender Man in Serbia

Early in his life, Marko* realized that his assigned female gender wasn’t who he really was. As a pre-teen and teenager, he began to find more traditionally masculine ways to express his gender identity. He named himself Marko, started training in mixed martial arts and got plenty of tattoos. He also spent time in therapy, which led him to formally pursue a gender transition.

Meanwhile, Marko was living a volatile life. Born into a marginalized Roma family in Belgrade, he was abandoned by his parents at a young age and put into a state home for children without parents. Soon, though, he was able to spend years with a warm and loving foster family. But when his guardian got sick and couldn’t continue to take care of Marko, he had to go back to the state home. It wasn’t a good fit for him, and he was eventually expelled for his outbursts. He was on the brink of homelessness, and he also lost his health insurance. As a result, he wasn’t able to continue with his gender transition.

Around that time, Marko got in touch with Café 16. The coffee shop is a social enterprise operated by the Centre For Youth Integration with CWS support. Roma teenagers and young adults—who face social discrimination and very few employment opportunities—can enroll in the Employment program. They receive on-the-job training to become servers and bartenders. This course was the start of a hopeful new chapter in Marko’s life.

Marko found a surrogate family at Café 16. He appreciated the structure that the program gave him, with daily commitments and shifts. He developed strong relationships with the other trainees and their program mentors. He trusted them, and they were there for him when he needed them.

Unfortunately, there have been plenty of moments when he needed them recently. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marko lost the part-time catering job that he had that supplemented his shifts at Café 16. He also had to leave the home he shared with his girlfriend when her father became violent with him. In these dark moments, he turned to his family of friends at Café 16. They gave him emotional support as well as a home; he moved in with some of the other trainees. Marko eventually finished the CWS-supported course and even got the highest grades on the final exam.

Because of the pandemic, there were hardly any service industry job openings in Belgrade. His father’s family tried to make amends with him and invited him to live with them in a small town elsewhere in Serbia. But they wouldn’t allow Marko to live openly as a transgender man, so in the end he wound up returning to Belgrade. Once again, his friends and mentors at Café 16 were there to help. The program mentors helped him find a therapy program that specializes in supporting transgender people. He also restarted the process of legally changing his name. The team helped Marko get in touch with his birth mother, who now lived in Germany. She was ready to welcome Marko into her life there, and Marko eventually agreed to move.

Today, at age 20, Marko is with his mom in Germany. He found a job in a restaurant thanks to his certification and training at Café 16. He still talks to the Café 16 team regularly, who connect with him by phone or on social media. “The support and counselling I’ve received from my teachers and friends in the program mean so much and are truly empowering for me,” Marko says.

*Name changed to protect the identity of this young man.