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Columbia's Cuban refugees share stories, reflect on resettlement

Monday, March 23, 2009 | 10:52 a.m. CDT; updated 10:54 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 24, 2009
CORRECTED CAPTION: *Edelberto Del Sol, the father of Eddy Del Sol, waves to family and friends in Sancti Spiritus Cuba, for the last time. Eddy Del Sol, whose father was a political prisoner in Cuba in the 1960s, began seeking permission to emigrate in May 2007.

* The man in the main photo is Edelberto Del Sol. A previous caption misidentified him.

COLUMBIA — Eddy Del Sol, a 27-year-old Cuban refugee, came to the United States with his parents and younger sister in November 2007.

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Del Sol works at the American Air Filter International parts factory in Columbia, making air conditioning filter components.

In Cuba, he was a high school chemistry teacher.

Still, he is grateful to be part of Columbia’s small but steadily growing Cuban community. 

"I have things that I never thought about having in Cuba," Del Sol said. "And I’ve only been here one year.”

When Cubans make their way to the United States and already have family here, they typically move to the same city. At least two families that have moved to Columbia in the last 13 months are expecting loved ones to join them.

The Refugee Resettlement Office partners with the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City to resettle refugees for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is the largest of the nine resettling agencies that work with the U.S. Department of State.

The number of refugees entering the country has risen over the last three years. The United States accepted 41,279 refugees in 2006; 48,282 in 2007; and 60,191 in 2008, said Mark Sloan, the associate director for processing for the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops conference resettled 17,823 of 2008’s refugees. Of those, 133 were sent to Jefferson City and Columbia. Eleven were Cuban.

An independent student group called Apoyo A Los Cubanos (Support to the Cubans) provides volunteer manpower to the resettlement office in providing services to Cuban refugees.

The strong support system for refugees, coupled with a strong Hispanic presence, means Columbia is considered increasingly well-suited for its Cuban refugees. These are the sorts of factors that determine where refugees are sent, Sloan said.

Two of the city’s newest Cuban families come from Sandino, a city in Pinar del Río (Cuba’s easternmost province) with a population of approximately 40,000.

Their stories serve as windows into the realities of life in Cuba, why conditions drive people to flee and how refugees adjust to new, unfamiliar homes.

Eddy Del Sol: from chemistry classroom to parts factory

Del Sol began to seek permission from the Communist government to leave Cuba in May 2007.

“I couldn’t be teaching students while I made preparations to come to the United States because (authorities) suspected something,” he said. “Maybe that I was teaching my students negative ideas about the Cuban government. I don’t know.”

This, despite the fact that Del Sol said the government had him teach several subjects at different grade levels due to a shortage of teachers.

“(Until having to leave my job) I did everything secretly throughout the process. Nobody knew anything, with the exception of a few trustworthy friends,” said Del Sol, whose father was also a political prisoner in the '60s.

Del Sol and his family all got "carta blancas," or white cards. To obtain one, Cubans must submit documentation confirming that they have gone through several necessary steps: turning the rights to their homes over to the state and leaving their jobs, provided they work in certain fields.

They cost $500 apiece – the fee the Cuban government charges its citizens, who usually make less than $15 per month, to leave their own country.

“Fidel has to get his last little bite in on them,” said Dan Murphy, education director of Columbia’s Refugee Resettlement Office.

When the paperwork was complete, Del Sol went to Havana in October 2007 for his flight information (which is determined for the refugee) and learned he would be coming to Columbia. In less than a month, he was on a plane with 70 other Cubans headed for the United States.

Del Sol and his family arrived in Columbia in November after flying to Cancún, Mexico, then to Miami, then to St. Louis before being driven to Columbia.

“From the time we left Cuba for Mexico we started to feel everything differently,” Del Sol said.

Arriving just ahead of winter didn’t make adjusting to a new home any easier.

“At first, we felt so alone, so sad, and it was so cold that we thought we would move to North Carolina immediately after the first six months,” said Del Sol, who has relatives there.

“But then things all began to change. We began to meet people, make friends, get ahead a bit, and we changed our minds completely. I think we’ve adapted pretty well.”

He credits learning English with getting his job at the air filter factory. It pays more than $10 per hour (at least a dollar more each hour than jobs he could have done without knowing English), and the added income has been helpful to his family.

Del Sol just landed his next job. He’ll start as a Spanish professor at MU, a job he says he got thanks to connections he made through the student volunteer group Apoyo A Los Cubanos.

“I’ve liked many things about being in the United States," Del Sol said. “Most of all, I have things that, in Cuba, I never dreamed of having.”

Bienvenido and Adelaida Velasco: forced labor and inherited repression

Bienvenido Velasco arrived in Columbia from Cuba in October with his wife, Adelaida. They now live with their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in an apartment on Broadway.

In 1960, Velasco (whose first name literally means “welcome” in Spanish) was in the Cuban province of Las Villas, helping "alzados," or anti-Castro insurgents, in what had become an underground railroad. He provided food, medicine, clothes and hiding places to those looking to overthrow the then-new Castro regime.

It wasn’t long before the regime acquired enough power to crack down on those who were cooperating with counterrevolutionary forces. The same year, Bienvenido was detained as a political prisoner and spent three years in a cell before being relocated to Sandino.

“In Sandino, I was put in labor camp,” Velasco said. He spent four years there, doing forced labor in the fields. “(I farmed) all sorts of things. That was hard work. (There was) tobacco, boniato (a Cuban variety of sweet potato).”

Working the land in the hot Cuban sun, Velasco couldn’t have known that nearly half a century later, he would be starting a new life in much colder Columbia. His journey – like that of so many other Cuban immigrants – involved lots of waiting.

By the time the Cuban government released Velasco from the labor camp, the regime was the only employer he could turn to for work. It had nationalized nearly everything on the island.

His past had marked him for life and limited his job options. He went into construction in Sandino, where he met Adelaida Capote, who made her living cooking for construction workers. They married in 1971, and he helped raise her son, Luis Quintana, who had been born the previous year.

By 1975, Bienvenido and Adelaida were determined to make their way to the United States as political refugees. But they ran into a problem.

“He had begun the process years earlier,” said Quintana, now 38, in the living room of his apartment as Spanish soap operas played on the Telemundo channel. “But what happened? My father, my actual father, wouldn’t give authorization for me to travel.”

His father, a Communist, refused to consent for ideological reasons.

Bienvenido would wait. He wanted to leave Cuba – but not without his son.

After high school, Quintana worked during the day to pay for night classes at a technical school, which cost him 100 Cuban pesos a month (equivalent to about $4). The amount was substantial. Quintana never made much more than 200 pesos a month at any job in Cuba.

While in school in the mid-'90s, Quintana worked at a "casa de oficiales," an exclusive club for government officials. There, he had his first experience with job discrimination, which tied back to his stepfather.

“They enjoy themselves, drink, dance, all those things,” Quintana said. “That lasted four months. After that, they realized where I came from, voided my contract and got rid of me.”

Later, he tried his hand at cutting hair. He got government permission to run a barber shop out of his home, provided he worked a day job from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and pay a monthly fee of 100 pesos.

“After 5 p.m., everyone goes home. What could I do after 5? Still, I had to pay the 100 pesos,” Quintana said. “Sometimes I had to take that fee from my salary, which was little more than 200 pesos. What was left to provide for my family?"

He left a job with the government and kept running the barber shop, until they shut it down.

A former barbershop client and ranking member of the local Communist Party gave him a job as an accountant at a health clinic but was told by his own superiors he’d be fired if he didn’t get rid of Quintana. That job lasted less than five months.

“So simply because I was my father’s son – I never fought Fidel or helped 'alzados' – but simply being a political prisoner’s son affects you greatly in Cuba,” he said.

It wasn’t until the end of 2004 that Bienvenido Velasco finally began again the process of leaving.

Cubans seeking refugee status go through a special process to make the move to the United States. First, they must petition the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana for refugee status and explain the circumstances that make this status appropriate.

"You write down all the things you have done, had happen to you and been involved in that contribute to your need for refugee status,” Quintana said.

In the case of Bienvenido and his family, those circumstances were the continued repression he and his family still felt.

An interview is next at the Interests Section where American officials interview Cubans seeking refuge. The interview determines whether the United States will grant the case refugee status. If other family members are granted refugee status, a second interview is scheduled.

A screening and a briefing are the next steps, as well as information about the American city where the refugees expect to live. This is when Cubans begin to deal with their own government.

Because of the volume of petitions for refugee status, it's not unusual for more than two years to pass from submission of the initial form to the final interview.

Realizing dreams of plenty and freedom

The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration works with nine independent resettlement agencies and one state government agency (Iowa’s Department of Human Services) to resettle refugees.

“With refugees in general, the government wants to avoid having a Cuban or Somali or any population in a ghetto where they come to one place and they don’t integrate and don’t learn the language," Dan Murphy said. "The goal of the government is, ‘Let’s disperse them throughout the U.S. so that they integrate better.’”

Each year, a placement capacity survey collects information about communities and their capacities to assimilate refugees.

"That includes what types of nationalities and language capacity they have," Sloan said. "If we’re settling Muslims, do they have mosques? If we’re settling Iraqis, is there an Iraqi community there?”

In Columbia, refugee services typically pay for six months of rent and one month of utilities, help new settlers find jobs, arrange English lessons and provide transportation.

Violeta Quintana sat on her father’s lap asking him to turn on the computer in her room so she could play a game. He was running late for work (Quintana has two jobs, one at Dillard’s and one at the Holiday Inn), but he paused, his eyebrows raised a bit, while he thought about his new home.

“Imagine — my daughter has a computer in her bedroom. She’s 5. Her brother who stayed in Cuba has nothing. Not so much as a television in his home," Quintana said. “I can say that after nine months living here, I have more than I ever managed to get in 38 years living in Cuba. That’s the difference.”

“In my first six months here, I ate more meat than I did in all the time I lived in Cuba."

His brother is now petitioning for refugee status and hopes to join Quintana in Columbia in the next few years.

“I spoke to him yesterday, and he told me, ‘I don’t care how I do it. I have to get out of this place,’" Quintana said. "That’s how bad things are there. You walk down the street with a bag, and police stop you, go through it and throw all your things to the ground, not even knowing what they're searching for. Just because they can.”

“You don’t just leave Cuba,"he said. "You escape.”


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