Most Cuba refugees on the way up

Instead of a car, the garage contains two beds, three chairs, two dressers, and a worn gold rug -- all donated or salvaged from trash piles. Clean donated shirts and slacks hang from nails on the wall. Cuban coffee is warming on a hot plate.

The quarters ar cramped -- but the spirits of the two Cuban refugees living in this run-down, one-car garage are high.

"This have gone perfectly here," says Wilfredo Leyua, standing bare-chested, in jeans and sandals, in front of their garage home.

Wilfredo and his brother Ubelio were among the 125,000 Cuban refugees who sailed to Key West earlier this year in boats dangerously overloaded. They have no complaints about garage living. For them it is just another stage in an upward progression toward a better life here.

In fact, on the day of their interviews with the Monitor they were moving into a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Coral Gables. They will pay the rent from their jobs as a busboy and a dishwasher in restaurants here.

There have been countless stories about the problems of settling the Cuban refugees. But most of them have taken their first steps toward a permanent new life in the United States.

The Leyua brothers -- in the opinion of refugee resettlement officials here both in and out of government -- are representative of the positive moves the majority of Cuban refugees are taking.

There are other refugees, like Barbara Rodriguez, who sits anxiously in a small hotel room in Miami Beach with her mother-in-law and two children. She has no friends or relatives among Cuban residents here. (About 10 percent of the refugees still have not been resettled.)

Refugee officials have been paying her rent and the family gets food stamps. But federal aid to pay her hotel bill has been shut off as of thiw week. She is anxious to find a more permanent home -- and a job. "Without work you are nobody," she says. Across the street from her small hotel, tourists lounge on the beach; on the horizon cruise ships sail in an out of Miami's port.

There are yet other refugees who, like Vicente Olivea, want to go back to Cuba. As far as anyone knows, they are only a fraction of the total refugees.

"I thought life was different here, but the system here is very hard," he says, sitting in the living room of another refugee's apartment in the Little Havana section in Miami. Mr. Olivea has no place of his own here and has to move every 15 days between the homes of three Cuban families here who put him up for a while.

In Cuba, Olivea says, he had a house to himself and free medicine. He was retired. Here he lives on food stamps and shuffles from lodging to lodging with only his clothes.

But mose of the refugees have more in common with the Leyua brothers: anxious to stay, already resettled, and, in many cases, already working.

Since their arrival in August, the Leyua brothers have gone from a refugee camp in Arkansas, to sleeping on the floor in their cousin's home here, to the garage. Until now they have been largely dependent on others.

Their cousin, Migdalia Marquez, and her husband, Jose, took them in along with eight other Cuban refugee relatives. At one time there were more than a dozen persons crammed into the Marquez's two-bedroom home. All the relatives now have jobs; two of them in California, the rest here, says Mrs. Marquez.

"When we came [in 1966], we got help," says Mrs. Marquez. She and her husband ar a waitress and waiter at a local restaurant -- the one where Ubelio now is a busboy.

While it is true that many earlier Cuban refugees speak openly of their disdain and distrust of some of the new refugees (claiming they are lazy and troublemakers), many Cuban residents here went out of their way to welcome the new arrivals. Though there are no accurate figures on how many of the new refugees have jobs, many do, and usually because resident Cubans hired them.

(One potential problem in coming months, say observers here, is for cases of employers, Cuban or otherwise, taking advantage of the refugees by not paying them fairly. There have already been some reports of such abuse.)

"The are many who came who don't want to work," Ubelio says of his fellow refugees. "But they came with bad ideas -- to fight, or drink."

"Those who want to work are in the majority," Wilfredo insists.

In Cuba, Wilfredo worked in the cane fields, among other jobs; Ubelio worked in a hospital.

Neither brother speaks english, but both plan to study it here. Wilfredo works from 3 to 10:30 p.m. at $3 an hour at his dishwasher job; Ubelio earns a little less as a busboy, working from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

One of the things they like best about life here is the freedom to go where they wish. Sometimes after work they go out to a movie or just walk around. "I got out and no one asks me for a carnet [internal passport]," marvels Ubelio. "It's a beautiful liberty."

In Cuba, neighborhood watch (spy) committees monitor movement of people at night.

"You can earn a lot more money here than in Cuba," says Wilfredo. things are expensive hre, he now realizes, but he has the feeling be can earn what he needs. "I plan to make progress," he adds.

In Cuba, he says. "when you go to a grocery store, you use up your money. [ then] when you go to buy clothes, you run out of money."

But eventually, as with most Cuban refugees, the conversation turns to their families still in Cuba. Wilfredo is afraid it may be fourto-six years before he can bring his family here. He asks about federal laws, wondering how soon he can safely visit them.

Wilfredo pulls out a photo of his wife and three children. they are seated around the birthday cake of one of the children, looking straight at the camera, as if trying to see their Papa who went ahead to the US and will send for them -- someday.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.