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Pakistani Entrepreneur Draws Migrants To Pop-Up Internet Cafes


As we follow the exodus of people from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere to Europe, it's become apparent that smugglers aren't the only ones profiting from the desperation of refugees. Legitimate businesses are making money selling everything from tents to phone cards. Joanna Kakissis reports from Belgrade on one of those businesses and the agile entrepreneur behind it.

ALI ALIK: (Foreign language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Ali Alik orders chicken and rice, a dish known as biryani in his native Pakistan. At this no-frills cafe in the Serbian capital, he's also paid about 15 bucks for a phone card and use of one of the computers upstairs where he Skypes with his family in Punjab. And he's leaving today.

Where are you going to now?

ALIK: I'm going to Norway.

KAKISSIS: You're trying to go to Norway.

ALIK: I like Norway.

KAKISSIS: Alik is just the kind of customer that fellow Pakistani Zulfigar Ali Gill is looking for.

ZULFIGAR ALI GILL: People are coming Turkey, then they are to move either to Greece or to Bulgaria. From Bulgaria, next their transit stop is Serbia.

KAKISSIS: Gill's Internet cafe, the Biryani House, is a short walk away from Belgrade's main train station where migrants camp out. He says many have money.

GILL: They are rich people. They are middle-class people who can afford to move to this place. Five - €600 per head they are spending here during this transit.

KAKISSIS: Gill is a tiny, outgoing man dressed formally in a suit. He says he's lived in Finland for 30 years and started opening cafes like this about a decade ago.

GILL: I have lot, lot of experience with these people. I know this migration, how it moves. I have studied it.

KAKISSIS: He will not disclose the name of his company but claims he's opened scores of Internet cafes in Europe.

GILL: I am lawyer. I know way, how to do it. I am professional.

KAKISSIS: In Serbia, he's opened a cafe in Presevo near the Macedonian border and three in Belgrade. Natasha Mijalovich is a Serb who works at the Biryani House near the Belgrade train station. The 19 year old enjoys practicing her English on the customers.

NATASHA MIJALOVICH: Customers - well, Pakistan, Afghanistan, mostly, then Syria, Iraq.

KAKISSIS: But it can be stressful.

MIJALOVICH: People, like, coming down stairs and start crying, like, after they are talking with someone. Last time that happened, that guy's brother got caught by a police in Turkey, and he didn't know where he was. And he couldn't get in touch with him.

KAKISSIS: But fewer migrants and refugees are traveling through Serbia these days. Only a few tents remain in the park near the train station. Julfikar Ali Gill has noticed.

GILL: I never do business with low profit. If today there is no profit, tomorrow I shall close.

KAKISSIS: He's looking to open shops in Romania and Slovenia where he expects people to go next. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Belgrade. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.