The Promise of America

Refugees Are Us

Have you seen the film, The PromiseEmpires Fall, Love Survives?

The Promise Movie Poster

The film brought to mind the precious cost of freedom not easily won. With Memorial Day weekend upon us, it is a good time to see the film and remember the cost of our freedom.

The Promise is a love story, yes, and a powerful story of a people fighting for survival in a country where they face elimination. A familiar scenario because almost from the beginning of civilization, groups have been displaced, loved ones have been separated, and people have had to fight for their freedom and survival. Often they have found that freedom in a nation not their own, and where they are labeled refugees.

My refugee story is well known to you, my readers. I was born in Cuba during the reign of its then brutal dictator, Fulgencio Batista. My father was a rebel fighting against the dictator, and my mother lived in a state of quiet oppression, unable to speak out against the tyrannical government for fear of reprisal. Batista fiercely oppressed those who came against him, the young Havana University students who had the courage to oppose him and eventually organized their forces to form the various rebel factions that brought about his demise. However, after this victory along came another dictator–Fidel Castro.

The man rebels trusted as their ultimate leader and to uphold their revolutionary ideals, including bringing freedom and democracy to Cuba, lied and betrayed them. Driven by his thirst for power, and within one year of ousting Batista, Castro became Cuba’s Supreme Leader. And when Fidel took power, he took it hard. Whereas Batista allowed life to be somewhat comfortable for Cuba’s law abiding citizens, Castro, totally redefined life for all Cuban people. No longer were they working under the illusion of rebuilding their democracy, they were trapped in a whirlpool of socialism that would land them in a communist state. So, people did what they had been doing for centuries, they fled, in droves.

Many Cuban parents sent their children into exile – alone. Because they could not directly leave the country, and for fear of losing their children to a communist state, they sent them into exile in America. These young ones became known as the Peter Pan children. Others, like my mother, who had visas for herself, my sister and I, escaped, leaving everything behind except literally the clothes on her back and one small suitcase. By 1961, the refugees coming from Cuba were so large in number, that the US had to initiate its first ever refugee program to assist the displaced Cubans.

William H. Mitchell, Commissioner of Social Security in 1961, wrote the report, The Cuban Refugee Program, describing the plight of the refugee, their port of entry, financial situation, the condition of their character, and the response from the US.

“FOR the first time in its history the United States has become a country of the first asylum for large numbers of displaced persons as thousands of Cuban refugees have found political refuge here. For the first time, also, the United States Government has found it necessary to develop a program to help refugees from another nation in this hemisphere.

The principal port of entry for these refugees has been and is Miami, and most of them remain in the Miami area. Many of the refugees quickly exhaust any personal resources they may have. The economic and social problems that they face and that they pose for Miami and for all of southern Florida are obvious. State and local official and voluntary welfare agencies in the area have struggled valiantly with these problems, problems of shelter, of food, of employment, of schools, of public health that are too much for any single community to meet. In keeping, therefore, with the traditional policy of the United States to grant asylum as long as they need it to people fleeing from oppression, the Federal Government has stepped in.”[1]

America opened her arms to refugees from Cuba in an unprecedented way. My own family was the beneficiary of relocation by the government and assistance to rebuild a life from the Catholic Church. There was an open door policy back then toward my people because “by and large” they were people of good repute. Mitchell’s report goes on to describe the quality of character of the Cuban refugees. NOTE: “More than half the entire faculty of the University of Havana” became refugees. Can you imagine losing more than half of the faculty of your town’s university?

“By and large, the refugees from Cuba are well- educated men and women. They come from every walk of life. More than a third of those heading a family had been in professional, semi-professional, or managerial occupations; they are doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, architects, authors, clergymen, chemists, musicians, artists, and educators. Almost a third of the entire group had been employed in clerical, selling, or skilled work. Fewer than a fourth has no special skills or semiskilled workers. More than half the entire faculty of the University of Havana was reported early in 1961 to be living in or near Miami…The refugees are proud and resourceful people. They maintain their courage despite the disruption of their lives. They do not wish to be objects of charity, and they apply for aid only in extremity. They are grateful for the aid they do receive, and in some hundreds of cases, they have voluntarily returned at least part of the money paid to them under the assistance program. From May through December 1961, for example, voluntary repayments totaling $119,930 were received. During December alone, 874 refugees voluntarily repaid $48,873.97.”[2]

My Mom’s Story: Relocation to Colorado happened through the Catholic Church. The Bishop met us at the Denver airport. Immediately, they escorted us to our new fully furnished, 3-bedroom duplex. A big apartment–the living room was so freaking big. A few days later your dad was working at the bank in Aurora, a short walk from our home, as and IBM Operator. His experience selling office equipment in Havana came in handy for this new position. People at the bank and private donors provided us with everything for our apartment. While living in Colorado, and hardly able to speak fluent English, your Dad managed to be a guest speaker a various Rotary clubs about his experience during the Revolution and his desire to return freedom and democracy to Cuba. This desire stayed with him for all of his life. Many times during the 1960’s – 1980’s he either attempted return trips to infiltrate Cuba or worked with exile groups based in Miami. Shortly after his arrival in the US, after the Bay of Pigs debacle, your father served as a US Marine and eventually became a US Citizen. Also, in Colorado, we received a welfare check from the government, but of course, we couldn’t keep it. We returned it because your father already had a job and income. This action made the papers. The headline said, “Refugee Family Returns Welfare Check” or something like that.

Mitchell’s report concludes:

“At the end of 1961, Cuban refugees were continuing to register at the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center at the rate of about 2,000 persons a week. Unless there are major changes in Cuba, substantial numbers of refugees will continue to arrive. The handling of this situation can be regarded as a problem or an opportunity for the United States. It is more rewarding to consider it as an opportunity to demonstrate this country’s humane dynamics, competence, and capacity for constructive social action.”[3]

Today, the refugee question remains a hot button for our nation and with a new and different people group.

In the spirit of demonstrating our nation’s capacity for constructive social action, many people advocate for an open border policy, while others, leery of the character of persons seeking refuge, advocate for the wall. I am of the personal opinion that America-Refugees Are Us, but we must be careful and do the best job we can do of vetting today’s refugees properly. We must do our best to know the character of those coming into our country, reject those who wish to do harm and cause chaos, and receive those who wish to better our nation and build for themselves and their families a new life within the boundaries of our nation’s values and customs. Sadly, we live in a different world from the days of 1961.

MOVIE SPOILER ALERT: The Promise has a sad conclusion with a final ending that shows the protagonist played by a Cuban, Oscar Isaac, in his new home with his new life of freedom. Quite inspiring. Worth seeing. Great cinematography.

Speaking of inspiration, a final word of thanks to America’s Veterans, including my father, Luis Lichtl, and my father-in-law, Kenneth Richards who served in the Pacific during WWII. Dad, thank you for your passion and struggle for freedom; Kenny, thank you for your service to our country, and all Vets, thank you for your service and sacrifice on behalf of liberty for all.

 

[1] [2] [3] THE CUBAN REFUGEE PROGRAM, William H. Mitchell-Commissioner of Social Security, Bulletin, March 1962

 

 

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