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
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
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
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
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
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;
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