Good life in U.S. eludes Cuban teens who fled by boat School expulsions, arrests mark lives of 139 after settlement effort


They were lost in the Florida Straits, drifting atop rope-lashed planks of wood and sagging rubber dinghies. But as they pitched across the shark-infested waters, the 139 Cuban teen-agers who had abandoned family and country kept their hopes alive with visions of life in the United States.

There would be Reeboks and blue jeans, they told one another, and cities where the food would never run out. There would be sports cars to drive, grand houses to furnish and places where people could speak without fear.

The teen-agers clung to those dreams during the days at sea and through the months in detention camps, until the Clinton administration admitted them in the winter of 1994, resettling them with foster families in nine states.

"For us, America was like paradise, a place where your life was ready-made," said Antonio Serrano-Velot, who was 17 when he left Cuba.

But 20 months later, the story of the Cuban teen-agers is mostly one of dashed expectations and disappointed dreams, both for the immigrants and for some of the Cuban exiles who fought for their admission.

Nearly a third of the teen-agers -- most of whom were high school dropouts and many of whom had rebelled against authority in Cuba -- have been expelled or suspended from school here for offenses that include fighting, truancy and carrying weapons to class, a survey of refugee resettlement agencies shows.

Bouncing around

A quarter have been arrested on charges that include assault, drug possession and car theft. About 15 percent ran away from their new homes. And while some have excelled, earning school honors and job commendations, most have bounced from foster family to foster family, challenging authority at every turn.

A look at the resettlement of the Cuban teen-agers provides a rare glimpse of the complexities involved in assimilating minors who come to the United States without parents or guardians.

Since 1980, about 11,000 refugee minors have been placed through programs financed by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

By most accounts, those programs, which were developed for the Vietnamese boat children, have worked well, and the young foreigners have thrived here, completing high school and finding steady work.

But the programs have required fine-tuning to address the needs of the 139 Cuban teen-agers, who crossed to the United States at various times during the summer of 1994 and ended up being processed as a group.

Although adjusting is difficult for most foreign minors, refugee experts say it has been particularly trying for the Cubans, who quickly rebelled against the highly structured programs that suited the Vietnamese so well.

The reasons for the difference are hard to assess, the experts say, but they note that the Cubans spent their childhoods breaking rules, whether by stealing from government stores, working the black market to feed their families or protesting against President Fidel Castro.

It was perhaps inevitable, the experts say, that young people who grew up resisting authority would continue to do so in the United States, especially when their golden visions failed to materialize.

Used to different life

Accustomed to spending their days at the beach and their nights partying with friends, many of the teen-agers resisted attending class or obeying family curfews. They wanted to work and live independently, not to study and live with foster families.

"They risked their lives to get here, expecting to get houses and lots of money and to live on their own," said Rosa Torres, a social worker assigned to counsel the 11 Cuban teen-agers who were resettled in and around Washington. "Instead, they were told to follow rules they had never followed at home: to go to school, to follow family rules, to respect authority. And many of them just wouldn't do it."

But if the Cubans were not ready for America, neither were the foster programs entirely ready for them.

Most refugee workers were accustomed to Vietnamese children who were sent to the United States by their parents to study and work, and who usually excelled in school and quickly adjusted to family life. But many of the Cubans left without their parents' knowledge. Those whose parents did know were sent with an emphasis on work -- to make money they could send home.

And in the rush to find homes and schools for the teen-agers, many refugee workers never learned that the tattered Cuban economy, which often pays government doctors less than waiters can earn at foreign-managed hotels, had spawned a generation of young people who would likely rebel against full-time education and structured family living.

To make matters worse, the programs placed the teen-agers in states where operating costs were low, like Michigan, and most of the Cubans ended up living with foster parents who did not speak Spanish. Florida, which has a shortage of foster families, took none.

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