Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Cuban family finds welcome, long refugee status in Serbia | AP News

LAJKOVAC, Serbia (AP) – Belquis Gonzalez and his family enjoy something close to their level of popularity in a small town in Serbia where they live after fleeing Cuba five years ago.

While most immigrants from the Caribbean island go to U.S. or Spanish-speaking countries, Gonzalez and her husband chose Serbia – a unique country in Europe where Cubans do not need a visa – and arrived there via Russia.

“We knew nothing about Serbia,” Gonzalez told the Associated Press at the family’s home in the town of Lajkovac, 80 kilometers southwest of the Serbian capital, Belgrade. “We had a lot of doubts and fears, but things went much better than we expected.”

Serbia, still struggling with the aftermath of the 1990s wars and sanctions, is far from the land promised for people seeking to escape violence, repression or domestic poverty and build a new life.

Although more than a million refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe since the start of a major wave of migration in 2015-16, most of them have made their way to rich EU countries in the north and west.

Mirjana Milenkovski, who works for the UN refugee agency in Serbia, says only 3,700 people have applied for asylum in the country since 2008, while 212 have been granted asylum.

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

They are “a very good example of integration,” Milenkovsky said. “It’s one of the biggest success stories we have.”

Although the Serbs emigrated in large numbers to prosperous countries, Gonzalez said his family was happy with their new life.

Gonzalez said the family left Cuba because of both political problems and lack of opportunities.

Although Cuba is like a Caribbean paradise for foreigners, life there is difficult and the system “doesn’t appeal to peoples at all. It limits them,” Gonzalez said.

When he arrived in Serbia, the family remained in the asylum seeker center until he received refugee status in 2019. UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Serbian officials helped the couple find work in Lajkovac and relocate there.

Gonzalez, who lives in a small apartment, works at a nearby butcher shop, while her husband works on construction sites in the area. On cold and windy days in late November, he didn’t seem to miss the Caribbean sun either.

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

The Cuban family, unfamiliar with the European way of life, was initially worried about whether they would accept them. Gonzalez noted that they did not face any rejection or racism, but “people look at you, but it’s for curiosity.”

Although they worked for a long time, they managed to make friends and communicate – Gonzalez also took accounting and Serbian lessons.

“We have friends and we enjoy each other’s circles or birthdays …. We get along with everyone,” he said. “Everyone calls us Cubans.”

Some locals commented that the traditionally good relations between Serbia and Cuba date back to a period when Serbia was part of a communist-ruled Yugoslavia.

Unaccustomed to newcomers and stunned by the fact that someone had moved from Cuba to his boring town of several thousand inhabitants, the residents of Laykovac stopped at the butcher shop to see Gonzalez or his nickname “Belka” .

Gonzalez’s employer, Dragana Isailovich, said: “They want to know if the weather is good in Cuba and whether he will take them there.”

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Follow the AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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