New Exiles: housing low, spirits high

Noemi's dark eyes shine as she smiles and waits for the next step in her transition from Cuban housewife to -- she hopes -- the head of a reunited family here.

Tomas picks through pils of donated clothes. Like most of the other refugees in the latest exodus from Cuba, he arrived in Key West with only the clothes he was wearing. He clutches a paper with the address of temporary housing he is being sent to less than two days after arriving from Cuba.

Jorge and his wife Beatrice can hardly contain their gaiety and excitement as they look around the temporary refugee center here.

"I'm happy," she says, holding her 11-month-old baby. Like a child on Christmas morning, she talks about the good meals she has had here already, the canned baby food she has been given, and the children's toys she has seen.

But even as these refugees explained why they dashed into the Peruvian Embassy more than a week ago, joining a desperate bid by more than 10,000 Cubans to get out of their country, officials here are running into tough problems finding enough temporary housing for them.

Some 13,000 refugees ahve been processed at this temporary center in a large building that resembles an airport hangar. Another 1,000 or so more are expected soon and many moe behind them as soon as the seas calm between Key West and the Cuban port of Mariel.

A flotilla of American and Cuban-American piloted boats waits in Mariel to bring more refugees from the embassy and from their homes.

About half the refugees arriving here do not have families in this area, says Aida Levitan, director of Latin affairs for Dade County. They are being sent to hotels, churches, private homes, and even warehouses.

"Right now we don't even have cots for the warehouses," she said.

Officials here stress the need for a greater federal commitment to help run the emergency settlement program.

Meanwhile, volunteers -- mostly from the Cuban community here -- are trying to fill the gap with donations of time, money, homes, food, and clothing.

Many of the latest arrivals are young men. Some come from Cuban jails, but most were in the Peruvian Embassy. Most arrive in good health, but a little dazed from the exodus experience, says Cuban Dr. Guarino J. Radillio. Some have arrived with teeth marks in their legs from dogs that refugees say are being used by police to help control crowds at Mariel, he says.

But in spite of such problems, there is an undeniable sense of buoyancy and hope among refugees interviewed her.

"I hate communism," said noemi, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisals against her three children still in Cuba. "In Cuba the life is very difficult," she says.

Tomas hopes to get a job and send back money to his wife and three children. He says he left because the family "did not have enough meat, milk, coffee."

Jorge had a graphics design job in a provincial government office issuing propaganda. "I like the work," he says, "but I didn't like the oppression." His wife Beatrice hopes for "a better life" for the baby in her arms -- and the one she is expecting.

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