HAVANA TIMES – Daniela Rojo arrived at “Jose Marti” Airport in Havana, with her children Erick and Tania, in a State Security car. Agents picked her up at her home without giving her time to say her final goodbyes. According to Denis – the officer in charge of her case – “There was no need for a farewell party.” Him and his colleagues searching through the family’s baggage was the farewell. Only Daniela’s closest friends knew that she was leaving and they weren’t allowed to meet. It wasn’t advisable in her case.
In early April 2022, Daniela was awaiting trial for having taken part in the mass protests that broke out on July 11, 2021. She was arrested amidst the protests that took place in her neighborhood, Guanabacoa, and was detained for 24 days. After being released on bail, her political activism and media visibility grew significantly.
The Political police were quick to tell her that her trial would be held on May 28th. The Court was asking for a five-year prison sentence. The news was an ultimatum for her to decide between staying and going to prison or going into exile before the trial date. State Security also informed her on the sly that this prison sentence could go up to seven years. Then, her sister began to work as a broker from abroad to get her plane tickets with a month and a few days leeway.
“If they were going to take me to trial, I didn’t want to stay in Cuba obviously. My children don’t have a father; I’m their mother and father. If I was to go to prison for five to seven years, this would be traumatic for them.”
At that time, Serbia was still a port of entry into Europe for Cubans as it was one of the few countries that weren’t asking for a visa for Cuban nationals. The first layover was in Jamaica; and the second, at Frankfurt Airport. They never made it to Serbia. After many months of persecution, threats and forced exile, Daniela turned to her only option: applying for political asylum in Germany.
In 2020, Daniela’s life was marked by the insecurity of a 25-year-old mother who didn’t have enough support to look after her children and be able to dedicate herself to other jobs that would ensure a more comfortable life for the family. “Every time it looked like my life was getting back on track, something would happen. When the pandemic came, I’d finally managed to get my little girl into daycare, the boy was at school and they were both sent back home to me again.”
Unable to work full-time, Daniela also had the responsibility of looking after her alcoholic father, a retired soldier who had been forgotten by the Revolution he once swore to defend and remain loyal to. Perhaps this is why Daniela took to the streets to protest on July 11th, not caring about what would happen next.
When Daniela left prison, she decided to continue to denounce everything she’d experienced during her time behind bars. She knew that this would have consequences for her and her children’s lives, but she was willing to accept them. Keeping quiet in her situation could have been her funeral; the Government attacks invisible people even more. As a result, she agreed with her mother that the children would go to live with her temporarily from that moment up until the trial.
“Even though I went to see them every day, it really affected them and me because the thing I love the most in this world are my children.”
Daniela had been promising her children that they would leave Cuba, for a very long time. “Like most young Cubans, I wanted to leave the country. Of course, I never thought it would happen under these circumstances, avoiding jail and not knowing if I’ll ever be able to come back. I was hoping to go to the USA with my family,” she says.
Even though the promise was always there, I never told them where we’d go, just that it would be to a better place. The mother’s words came true and when it was time to leave, the children boarded the plane with her.
Daniela was most worried about how they’d adapt to the new place. They were leaving their country for a very different place for the first time, with a language that is completely different from any romance language coming from Latin. “When I was in Cuba and somebody talked to me about adapting to the new language and a new culture, they always told me it was quite fast, but I feel like it’s taking longer than I would have liked.”
When they arrived in Germany, they spent three days isolated at a temporary shelter inside the airport. Then, they were taken into a refugee center where they began to file the application for political asylum and they settled down for a few months. Daniela began to work with the center to help other refugees who were coming from other places, Cubans too. She was given a room for her and her children at the center; but they shared all of the other services with other refugees at the facility. They were later transferred to another center where they could settle in better and apply for legal status more quickly.
“I had a six-month delay in my asylum application at the first center, a little so I could give the children a bit more stability and also because I was helping other Cubans who were arriving. So, we got a little behind; the children in getting into school and me on starting German lessons. But then we got on track and they are now saying a few words and phrases and we are falling into the routine of the system.”
While her children are adapting more easily, she feels like she’s in a shambles at times. “Sometimes, sadness overwhelms me and I crack, but I look at them and they’re my reason for waking up every day and I tell myself “I have to go on” even though I don’t want to. It’s hard, because you have to take in, learn a lot and adjust. There’s also the trauma you carry of political persecution in your own country and the pain of not knowing when you’ll be able to go back or how everything will be there when you do finally make it back. But you have to adapt the children and help them in their own processes which you don’t understand, sometimes.”
“When Erick, now nine years old, is asked if he wants to go back to Cuba, he says NO. On the other hand, Tania, the youngest, does want to go back to see her grandmother. He also misses his grandmother, but he’s more resistant because he’s older and is more aware of what his mother experienced there,” Daniela says.
“I’m quite honest about the situation in Cuba, especially with my eldest son. I tell him about Cuban history and how we were told the wrong thing and I try to tell them the truth. They both know I came here to run away from the dictatorship and they know the Cuban Government is bad.”
Erick and Tania go to school. They are settling in and making new friends every day. Daniela takes them to the library, to amusement parks and, even though they are far from their loved ones, their childhood is full of possibilities.
“I think there are a lot of advantages for my children to grow up here, starting with the education they’ll receive and all of the knowledge they’ll gain just by living here and going to a public school. A more noble and decent future awaits them here than any future they could have ever had in Cuba, even though this hurts because it’s still my country.” Daniela is relieved to know that her children will have a more prosperous future and she is setting goals to make this possible, to grow as a person and to make the path easier and safer for her children, as long as she can.
The possibility of applying for asylum in the European Union is governed by the Dublin Regulation, which determines which EU member state is responsible for the examination of an application for asylum submitted by a person on European soil. It also seeks to prevent a person from applying for asylum in different EU countries at the same time, and ensures there is always a State to examine an asylum application submitted by a person in Europe.
In the specific case of Germany, applying for asylum is only possible once within the country, you are unable to apply for asylum at a German Embassy abroad. This is why people seeking protection must first enter Germany, which can be a more or less difficult entry depending on the country of origin. An asylum application can also be made in German airports. Applicants receive a process number for their asylum case, as well as a temporary residence permit (Aufenthaltsgestattung). The permit serves as an ID document in Germany as long as the asylum process is open. The Aufenthaltsgestattung is valid for six months with the possibility of being renewed for another six months until a decision on asylum is made. During this time, asylum-seekers have the right to access the public health system and German-language courses.
Political asylum-seekers in Germany are sent to different shelters across the country’s 16 states to prevent overcrowding. According to German asylum law, applicants should live in shelters for a maximum of 18 months and a maximum of six months, if they are families with young children. While applicants are living in shelters, they also have a “territorial restriction“ (räumliche Beschränkung) that forces them to only move within districts close to them. During this time, asylum-seekers also have the right to financial aid of varying amounts depending on individual cases.
Just over a year since they went into exile, Daniela is celebrating the approval of her political asylum out loud. She’s put it on social media, in her WhatsApp status and she’s celebrating it. Some newspapers have even covered the news. From now on, she has three years to learn German and to work. If the motives for her asylum application remain after that, she’ll be granted residency. She also has the right to enrol in the Integration Course to learn the German language, history and traditions.
“I have access to normal medical insurance now, I can work. I have a passport as a refugee so I can finally travel. We can finally leave the shelter, now I have to find an apartment that the Government pays for some time until I start working, but we can leave the shelter.” She says this like someone who is saying: “Finally, I’m free.”