This is a re-post from Ana Fores-Tamayo’s blog Adjunct Justice [http://adjunct-justice.blogspot.com/].
Given that the issue of undocumented immigrants in the United States has moved to the forefront during this year’s still nascent presidential campaign, and given that much of the discussion of immigration has been quite generalized and abstract, this sort of personalized perspective on the contemporary experience seems all the more necessary and valuable.
I write this in anticipation of World Refugee Day, June 20th.
I would like you to read the stories of refugees today, interwoven with my own tale of a better yesterday. I would like you to think hard, and to make changes to this existing system, a detrimental, unsparing blistering network that systematizes inhumanity and greed, and makes it the status quo.
How can this be right?
La playa, Cuba © Dinorah Fores
A few weeks ago, my daughter got into one of those nostalgic conversations with me trying to recall the long ago; she wanted to find out about her distant past, where she came from. That meant, of course, she needed to know more about where I began: my past as a refugee child. She knew I was born in Cuba; she remembered my dad had been a lawyer; she understood he had become a professor at Fordham Universityin New York.
But beyond that, she did not know much about my past.
To her, my father had never been some figure escaping political repression; he was just grampa. In turn, I was not some present day adjunct faculty or human rights activist working to end family detention or the imprisonment of innocent women and children, or a nonconformist shaped by the events of her past.
To my young daughter, I was just plain ol’ mom.
So that evening, cuddled into our respective couches over the miles and telephone connections, my daughter asked me to disentangle my story from the cobwebs of memory, so that I had to think about my father, my mother, my siblings. I remembered our story of immigration back then, in the 60s, and I mused at how different that story was from the tale of Japanese internment, or how different that seemed, too, from the nightmare we hear from refugee families now.
Today, when I read about the situation of refugees and the horrors it cost the people interned, I realize that most comments always refer to the Japanese internment camps, rightly so.
They were horrific.
So many articles today state that refugee camps—and anything like them—have got to go.
But while doing my research for this piece, I have been reading all the background I can find on the Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program of the 1960s. Looking at this program through adult eyes, I see that it did many of the same things refugee camps did back in the 40s and, likewise, refugee prisons now do: deport, resettle, and get rid of refugees, make asylum seekers disappear.
“Remembering the Cuban Freedom Flights”
© The Miami Herald
The Juan Clark Collection, 1967
Back then when I was a little girl just coming over, however, the government at least had established their “resettlement claims” with a semblance of humanity, even if their motives were purely arbitrary. Whether it was to gain teachers, or to take refugees away from one area (Miami) to other less populated ones all over the United States, they were human about the choices given us, and they treated us for what we were, refugees escaping to save our lives.
Now, refugee camps do not think of “people” or the individuals whose lives the government is altering: they either want to deport women, children, and entire families fleeing for their lives, or they just want to keep them “jailed.” Indeed, they deceive refugees coming in by calling these detention centers or prisons “casa hogar.” There is nothing “homey” about these places: they are cold, harsh, unfeeling.
You see, many of these new places are for profit centers, and with their earning at least $250 per person per day on average — up to almost $300 in the new “family detention center” opening in Dilley, Texas — that’s something these predatory jails want to keep open. They do not think of people; they only think of profit.
But back then we were not jailed; we were not deported.
My family must have been one of the first recipients of the Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program, and we were definitely “resettled.” It may have been a “voluntary” program, but how voluntary can it be for a man with 5 children and 1 on the way, a professional who saw himself in a strange land, who did not speak a word of the language, who was making $25 a week at a lab cleaning floors (a lawyer, mind you!), and suddenly this beneficent government offered to help him and then give him a job with a living wage, but only if he moved to a god forsaken place so different from the place he knew?
My father had his pride, but he also had seven mouths to feed. And my father saw goodness in the American people and what they had to offer; he did not see them benefitting themselves, although they gained from his employment as a teacher in places where no one else wanted to go. How different things are now!
Do you think the 19 year old girl, Lilian Yamileth Olivia Bardales, who tried to commit suicide after 8 months of detention without any hope of reprieve, feels the same way?
Olivia Bardales and her son were deported on Monday, June 8th,from Karnes Detention Center; I am sure neither the center nor ICE wanted to draw any more unneccessary attention to theinjustices that her incarceration and suicide attempt highlighted, so they hussled her out of the country quickly, not letting her lawyers see her, keeping her in solitary confinement after her suicide attempt, and denying her doctor’s visits, although they said that she was under medical watch the entire time.
Oh how they lie.
I do not have many memories of my own early days in this country. But they cannot be so horrific as what is going on now.
I do remember sitting by myself in a lonely schoolyard, the grass all green around me, looking at the school children playing, laughing, all away from me, far far away. They peered strangely at me, laughing at me, taunting me with words I did not understand.
They cackled at my three handmedown dresses from the Salvation Army.
I remember one terrible day of rain, how my brothers and I had come home after school, sopping wet from the rain. Our only pair of shoes were ruined. My mother stared miserably, took them, and — not knowing what to do — shoved them into the oven to dry.
Of course the next day the shoes curled up beyond recognition. As an adult, I can laugh at the silliness of that surreal morning. But I cannot quite remember my father’s anguish as she silently wept those bitter tears and kept us home from school that morning, on another rainy day.
Soon after my father said yes to the Resettlement Program.
The government was promising to send Cuban professionals to farflung places, the little towns of Iowa, Montana, Illinois, and such. These remote locations needed good teachers too, and no one else was willing to go. In turn, they would pay Cubans for the year’s worth of their degree revalidation, aside from English classes, and their resettlement costs.
We were proud to be in this country, even with our hand-me-down clothes.
Fores Family Album
Mighty proud the government was that their Public Relations had worked so well with this Cuban Resettlement Program, as many of the Cubans coming over were choosing to “resettle.”
There was still a lot of prejudice, though, just like there is today.
So funny, how I saw things as a little girl… I do not remember my first two years of Florida at all: I traumatized most of it away. I do not remember much of Montana either, except that we lived in a compoundlike apartment complex, filled with other Cubans, but I was happy enough there. I do not remember school, but I do remember the clouds so blue and white, with the beautiful Rocky Mountains in the background, and the one friend I had, also a Cuban girl.
What do refugee children have now to remember? What do you think OliviaBardales’ son will remember of the country that ousted his mother, made her want to kill herself?
My father wanted us to have memories.
He wanted a better life for us, just like all people who run as refugees want for their children. Just like all these mothers who are now interned in Karnes Detention Center, or Dilley, or Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center want for their own — a noble life away from fear.
Is that so much to ask?