Search for a new life: Guantanamo Bay to Baltimore

April 08, 1995|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Alfredo Perez is glad to be in Baltimore, but the water-stained picture of him kneeling beside his little daughter is a constant reminder of why he's not happy yet.

The picture was damaged when he set out on a flimsy raft from his native Cuba to escape the government of Fidel Castro. He held tightly to the photo when he was picked up by the Coast Guard and taken to the Guantanamo Bay refugee camp.

Even now, eight months later, he becomes emotional when he talks about his 5-year-old Sheila, who remained behind with his wife in Cuba. He struggles to clear his throat. His eyes get watery. Minutes pass before he can speak again.

"For me, my daughter is the biggest thing in my life," he finally says in Spanish through an interpreter. "And if it weren't for her, I would not have risked my life. It is her future here that I'm working for."

Mr. Perez, 33, is one of 12 Cubans who have settled in Maryland in the last month after being released from Guantanamo Bay. They were freed by a Clinton administration policy to grant entry to 8,179 Cuban men, women and children who were plucked from the ocean while fleeing Cuba last summer.

Under the U.S. Justice Department policy, Cubans held at Guantanamo were released if they accompanied immediate family members who were over 70 years old, were minors whose long-term detention in the camp would constitute an "extraordinary hardship" or were suffering from medical

conditions that could not be treated at Guantanamo.

Unaccompanied minors also were released, said Ron J. Tomalis, a spokesman for the Justice Department's Community Relations Service.

Mr. Perez said he was a photographer in Cuba, but the government limited the income he received from shooting weddings and birthday parties.

He said he wanted to bring his family, but thought it would be too unsafe to put the young girl on the raft -- a vessel he helped build of inner tubes, wooden boards and pieces of aluminum.

On Aug. 18, he boarded the vessel with five other people, including his disabled 30-year-old brother, to pursue a life he thought was impossible in his homeland.

He said the raft held together through two storms during the two days at sea.

"Good contraption," he said in English with a smile.

They had gone about 67 miles toward the Florida Straits when a U.S. Coast Guard ship appeared.

"We thought we were going to the United States," Mr. Perez said.

Unbeknown to them, President Clinton a day earlier changed a long-standing U.S. policy of almost automatically allowing Cuban refugees to enter the country. Mr. Clinton made the change to discourage waves of refugees flooding to Florida late last summer after Mr. Castro decided not to block illegal departures from Cuba.

Mr. Perez and the others were taken to the U.S. military base on Guantanamo Bay, where Cubans and Haitians seeking refuge were detained in camps surrounded by barbed-wire fences.

"We left thinking we were coming to the land of freedom, and we were put in concentration camps," he said.

The Coast Guard stopped 32,584 Cubans last year -- 22,736 remain in detention, the Justice Department said.

Mr. Perez and his brother, Angelio Perez, were released because his brother was crippled after an earlier motorcycle accident, he said.

The Justice Department made arrangements with the Church World Service (CWS), one of two groups in the United States working with Cuban refugees, to place the brothers in Baltimore. The refugees are being sent to areas other than overburdened southern Florida, officials said.

The two were met at Baltimore-Washington International Airport by Church World Service workers and housed at the group's New Windsor center for 10 days. The group found them an apartment on Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, furnished with a bed and a couch, and set them up with employment services, health exams and English classes, said Donna Derr, a CWS official.

Young refugees like Jorge Martinez, a 15-year-old who left Cuba with his father and stepmother, receive help getting placed in school. They live in a bare-walled, two-bedroom apartment in the Woodburne Heights area. It is furnished with beds, two living room chairs, a dining room table and a 12-inch black-and-white television.

Refugees from Cuba and Haiti may receive eight months of federally funded cash and medical assistance along with other services to help integrate them into society, said Frank J. Bien, director of the Maryland Office for New Americans.

Mr. Perez has embarked on his new life. He has enrolled in English classes at the Hispanic Apostolate in Upper Fells Point. And with the help of Centro de la Comunidad, a Latino community center, he's already found a job.

Yesterday was his first day as a $5-per-hour busboy at Lista's restaurant in Fells Point. But he is plotting his next step up the economic ladder. Eventually, he hopes to work as a photographer, become an American citizen and bring his wife and daughter to live with him in a nice house.

"As a busboy, I will learn how to work at the restaurant and become familiar with the operation. I would then like to be a waiter. It's good to be a waiter because you get good tips," he said. "At the beginning, you have to make sacrifices so you can get ahead in life."

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