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LAJKOVAC, Serbia (AP) — Belquis Gonzales and her family enjoy something close to celebrity status in a small town in Serbia, where they live after fleeing Cuba five years ago.

While most emigrants from the Caribbean island go to the United States or Spanish-speaking countries, Gonzales and her husband chose Serbia — a rare country in Europe for which Cubans do not need visas – and arrived there via Russia.

“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 had many doubts and many fears as well, but things have been a lot better than we had expected.”

Still struggling with the aftermath of wars and sanctions in the 1990s, Serbia is far from a promised land for people seeking to build new lives after fleeing violence, repression or poverty at home.

While over a million refugees and migrants have arrived since the big migration wave into Europe in 2015-16, most were only on their way toward wealthy European Union nations further north and west.

Mirjana Milenkovski, who works in Serbia for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said just 3,700 people have formally applied for asylum in the country since 2008, while 212 have 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. “This is one of the greatest success stories that we have here.”

Even as Serbians have emigrated in large numbers for more prosperous countries, Gonzales said her family is happy with its new life.

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

Though Cuba resembles a Caribbean paradise to outsiders, life there is difficult and the system does not “favor the 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 jobs in Lajkovac and move there.

Settled in a small apartment, Gonzales works at a nearby butcher shop and her husband at construction sites in the area. She didn’t even seem to miss the Caribbean sunshine on a cold, windy day in late November.

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

Unfamiliar with the ways of life in Europe, the Cuban family initially worried whether they would find acceptance. Gonzales said they faced no rejection or racism though “people do stare at you, but it’s like out of curiosity.”

They have managed to make friends and socialize despite long hours at work — and Gonzales also has taken 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.’”

Some locals have commented on the traditionally good relations between Serbia and Cuba that date back to the era when Serbia was part of Communist-run Yugoslavia.

Unused to newcomers and astonished that someone actually moved from Cuba to their drab-looking town of several thousand people, residents of Lajkovac have stopped by the butcher’s shop just to see Gonzales, or “Belka,” as she is nicknamed here.

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


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