ADAŠEVCI, Serbia, Feb 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As snow falls outside a migrant centre along a highway near the Serbian town of Adaševci, a large Cuban family huddles together in their bedroom, idly playing with their mobile phones to pass the time.
With old photos dotting her walls and laundry hanging by her frosty windows, Tania Hernandez’s tiny room - which she shares with six family members - is a far cry from sunny Havana, the Caribbean island capital she left behind in August last year.
But living in these cramped conditions is nothing compared to the political repression Hernandez said she had to endure.
“We decided to leave because in Cuba there’s no freedom. We were very tired of so much repression upon our shoulders, it was too much,” the Spanish-speaking mother of three said through a translator.
The family is part of a small but growing number of Cubans travelling through the Balkans towards Spain, the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) says.
The unlikely migrant route from Cuba to Spain via Russia and the Balkans became apparent at the height of the European migration crisis in 2015, said IOM’s Western Balkans coordinator Peter Van der Auweraert.
“The route is attractive because they don’t need a visa to go to Russia,” he said in a telephone interview. “So at least they can get close to the (European Union) without any visa issues.”
Around 7,700 migrants live in Serbia, the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) reports, with around 6,500 people housed in government-run camps, most of whom have fled conflicts and poverty in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
As of Jan. 25, there were 168 Cubans living in Serbian reception centres, according to IOM, stranded after below-freezing temperatures and closed borders halted their journeys.
While the “Cuban dream” was to get to the United States, which is geographically closer and where some of her relatives are, Hernandez said it was easier to travel to Europe.
Plagued by chronic economic problems, Cuba’s population of 11 million has endured decades of hardship, although not the deep poverty, violent crime and government neglect of many other developing countries.
Communist leader Fidel Castro, who died last November, swept away capitalism and won support for bringing schools and hospitals to the poor. But he also created legions of enemies and critics, concentrated among the exiles in Miami in the United States, who saw him as a ruthless tyrant.
Hernandez and her husband said they sold their house to fund the family’s flight to Moscow, where they could freely access the internet to plan their journey to Spain.
“It was divine. For me, just being at the airport was glorious. We couldn’t wait to leave Cuba,” the 46-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“YOU HAVE TO WAIT”
But having spent five months with more than 1,000 other migrants at this converted motel in western Serbia, the family’s initial enthusiasm has started to fade.
“Day to day life here is disheartening. People don’t treat us badly, they give us a roof and food ... but the problem is the despair,” said the short-fringed Hernandez.
“We’ve been here for five months and no one ever gives us any information. They only tell us, ‘You have to wait, you have to wait, you have to wait,’” she said.
Since her family only speaks Spanish, Hernandez said she won’t seek asylum in Serbia, given the language barriers, preferring Spain over popular destinations like Germany, where most migrants apply for asylum.
In 2016, there were 80 Cuban asylum seekers in Spain, and 44 cases the year before, but no Cubans have been officially resettled in Spain since 2010, according to the UNHCR.
Once the weather improves, IOM’s Van der Auweraert said he expects more Cubans to continue their journey, but warned there was “no legal way” to get to Spain from Serbia.
“I MISS MY FRIENDS”
Making it to Spain is just part of the problem. For Hernandez’s two youngest children, growing up in a busy migrant camp with no schooling, or friends, is taking its toll.
Wearing a high ponytail, white skinny jeans and a light grey headband, Hernandez’s confident 13-year-old daughter Tania Darlin stands out among the crowds of mostly Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian migrants in the camp.
“I miss my friends, school, my family. I don’t have friends here. They don’t like me because my culture is different. No one talks to me. I’m always by myself,” she said.
Her little brother Luis, 9, echoed this sentiment.
“I miss everyone in Cuba. I miss my grandma, I’m not in touch with my friends there,” he said wearing a baseball cap, backwards. “Here I’ve got Serbian friends, but the others they all hate me. They want to fight but I don’t want to.”
Despite uprooting her family from Cuba and being stuck in snowy Serbia, Hernandez said the risk was worth it.
"We don't care that we've lost the house, we want freedom. I don't regret what we've done - quite the opposite. In the future we'll have more," she said. (Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories)