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Cuban family receives refugee status in distant Serbia

LAJKOVAC (Serbia) -- Belquis Gonzales' family enjoys celebrity status in a small Serbian town. They moved from Cuba five years ago and now live in this area.

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Cuban family receives refugee status in distant Serbia

Most emigrants from the Caribbean island travel to the United States or Spanish speaking countries. Gonzales and her husband, however, chose Serbia as their destination. This is a rare European country for which Cubans don't need visas and they arrived via Russia.

Gonzales said that "we didn't know anything" about Serbia to The Associated Press at Gonzales' family home in Lajkovac. The town is about 80 km (50 miles) from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. "We had many worries and doubts, but it has been much better than we expected."

People fleeing poverty or violence in their homeland are still struggling to rebuild their lives in Serbia, which is still reeling from the effects of the wars and sanctions of the 1990s.

Although more than a million migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe since 2015-16's big migration wave, many were only traveling to wealthy European Union countries further north or west.

Mirjana Milenkovski is a U.N. refugee agency UNHCR worker in Serbia. She said that only 3,700 people had applied for asylum in Serbia since 2008, while 212 of them have been granted it.

Seven Cubans are among them, including Gonzales and Yordelis Pimienta's husband Yordelis. Their 11-year old daughter Islena Danay is also included.

Milenkovski stated that they are a "very positive example of integration." "This is one the greatest success stories we have here."

Gonzales stated that her family is content with their new life, despite the fact that many Serbians have moved to more prosperous countries.

Gonzales stated that the family fled Cuba due to political difficulties and lack of opportunities.

Although Cuba appears to be a Caribbean paradise, outsiders don't find it easy and the system doesn't "favor" the people. Gonzales stated that it limits them.

The family was granted refugee status in 2019 after they had spent time in Serbia. The UNHCR and Serbian authorities assisted the couple to find work in Lajkovac, and then move there.

Gonzales lives in a small apartment and works with her husband in a local butcher shop. On a windy, cold November day, she didn't seem to miss the Caribbean sun.

Gonzales stated, "What I love most about this country, is that you can see all four seasons: spring, summer and autumn, and winter."

The Cuban family was unfamiliar with European life and initially worried about their acceptance. Gonzales claimed that they were not subject to racism or rejection, though people do sometimes stare at them out of curiosity.

They are able to socialize and make friends despite working long hours. Gonzales has also taken accounting and Serbian language courses.

She said, "We are friends with our friends, and we enjoy each others company or birthday parties We get along with everyone." "Everyone knows we are 'the Cubans.

Locals comment on the historically good relations between Serbian and Cuba dating back to the time when Serbia was part the Communist-run Yugoslavia.

Residents of Lajkovac were surprised to find someone had moved from Cuba to their small, drab-looking community of several thousand people. They stopped at the butcher's shop to meet Gonzales or "Belka", as she is affectionately known.

Dragana Isailovic, Gonzales' employer said that they wanted to find out if Cuba has good weather and if she would take them.

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