Cuban family receives refugee status in remote Serbia

LAJKOVAC, Serbia (AP) – Belquis Gonzales and his family enjoy near celebrity status in a small town in Serbia, where they live after fleeing Cuba five years ago.

They reached the Balkan country via an unlikely migratory route that passed through Russia, one of the few places in Europe for which Cubans do not need a visa. While most Caribbean Island emigrants travel to the United States or Spanish-speaking countries, Gonzales and her husband chose Serbia, again due to the lack of visa requirements.

“We didn’t know anything about Serbia,” Gonzales told The Associated Press at the family’s home in Lajkovac, a town about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Serbian capital, Belgrade. “We also had a lot of doubts and fears, but things were much better than expected. “

Still grappling with the aftermath of the wars and sanctions of the 1990s, Serbia is far from a promised land for those seeking to rebuild a new life after fleeing violence, repression or poverty in their country.

While more than a million refugees and migrants arrived since the great wave of migration to Europe in 2015-16, most were only on their way to the wealthy countries of the European Union further north and south. Where is.

Mirjana Milenkovski, who works in Serbia for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said only 3,700 people had formally applied for asylum in the country since 2008, while 212 had received it.

Among them are seven Cubans, including Gonzales, her husband, Yordelis Pimienta, and their 11-year-old daughter, Islena Danay Pimienta.

They are a “very good example of integration,” Milenkovski said. “It’s one of the biggest success stories we’ve had here. “

Although Serbs migrated in large numbers to more prosperous countries, Gonzales said his family was happy with his new life.

Gonzales said the family left Cuba due to both political issues and lack of opportunities.

Although Cuba looks like a Caribbean paradise to foreigners, life is difficult and the system does not “favor people at all.” It rather limits them, ”Gonzales said.

Once in Serbia, the family stayed in a center for asylum seekers before being granted refugee status in 2019. UNHCR and Serbian authorities helped the couple find and settle in Lajkovac. .

Living in a small apartment, Gonzales works in a neighboring butcher’s shop and her husband works on construction sites in the region. She didn’t even seem to miss the Caribbean sun on a cold and windy day in late November.

“What I love most about this country is that you see all the seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter,” Gonzales said.

Unfamiliar with the ways of life in Europe, the Cuban family initially worried about whether it would be accepted. Gonzales said they didn’t face any rejection or racism although “people are looking at you, but it’s like curiosity.”

They managed to make friends and socialize despite working long hours – and Gonzales also took accounting and Serbian language classes.

“We have our friends and we enjoy each other’s company or birthday parties… We get along with everyone,” she said. “Everyone knows that we are ‘the Cubans’.”

Unaccustomed to newcomers and amazed that someone had left Cuba for their lackluster city of several thousand people, some locals visited the butcher’s shop to see Gonzales, or “Belka,” as she’s known here.

“They want to know if the weather is good in Cuba and if she will take them there,” Gonzales employer Dragana Isailovic said.

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