Cubans in refugee camps eager for 'new lives'

Mario pauses on a crowded dirt pathway between two sections of this refugee camp housing some 10,000 Cubans. The areas are jammed with long, open-sided tents -- 30 cots to a tent. He is on his way to find a priest to baptize his son. Near us, as we talk, workmen are constructing a cement-block shower house to replace the one hastily set up in one of the long tents.

"What day is it?" Mario asks with a smile that is both puzzled and anxious. "I've lost track of time."

Forced to wait in this and other fenced-in, guarded camps set up in Florida and elsewhere, the Cubans from the boat flotilla are eager to get out -- to start their new life in the United States. It will be, they are sure, a better life than they knew in Cuba.

But when, Mario and the others wonder, will they be released? No one knows for sure. By most official estimates, it will be several months before the refugee camps are emptied.

Some 20,000 refugees were never sent to the camps, but were released from processing centers in the Miami area to relatives. Those who had no relatives or sponsors -- or whose backgrounds needed more checking -- ended up in camps. To be released, they need health and security clearances and sponsors.

Slowly, the release process has begun. But for many, the long wait for freedom, begun years ago in Cuba, continues here behind a patrolled fence.

There is an air of patience mixed with grumblings and occasional anger.

"We're content," says Orlando, who came here with his son and daughter-in-law. "They give us everything," he adds, sitting on his cot and holding up a half-pint of milk and a sandwich. Camp meals, he and most other refugees interviewed here readily agreed, are better than those in Cuba.

But across the aisle from Orlando, Senora Leonor, who came here with a family of eight, explains in hushed tones some "problems" in the camp. She has seen homosexual activities and prostitution "right here in this tent." Her main concern is that her 11-year-old daughter, Nora, is seeing these things, too.

And, as occurs in any "city" of 10,000, there have been fights. Little things add to the tensions.

Raphael, who has been elected head of his 30-man tent, politely explained the need for deodorant, underwear, and stamps and envelopes. Most refugees, he said , have families still in Cuba but lack the money to call or telegraph them to let them know of their safe arrival in the US.

In the rush of the multimillion-dollar refugee resettlement program, stamps and envelopes were overlooked.

Overcrowding presents fire hazards as well as social problems. The Air Force expected only 3,000 refugees at this camp. With 10,000, "I'm surprised it works ," says Capt. Charles Justiz.

It would work, he says, without several hundred refugees helping with food service, construction, and other tasks. Asking for helpers brings a flood refugee volunters, says another military officer.

Meanwhile, Mario and the other refugees wait to be released, passing the long hours sleeping -- or trying to sleep -- playing the guitar, playing volley ball, or just talking.

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