As the storm lashed their homemade boat, they prayed that they would reach the shores of the United States. Key West, Miami, Naples — as long as the soil beneath their feet was the land of the free, they would have a new home and be free from persecution. The wind continued to howl and the waves crashed over the hull, slowly filling the stern with seawater. The Cuban exiles clung to the small craft for their lives, knowing that to be tossed overboard would mean certain doom. Slowly, the storm began to break and they knew that they would survive. More than simply being hopelessly off-course, they realized that the sail of the boat had been shredded in the tempest, and that the engine had taken on water and would need to be repaired on dry land. They floated aimlessly for hours with the current of the sea, unsure exactly how far they were from the eastern shores of Cuba.
Knowing that the journey to the United States might last more than a week, they had stowed proper provisions on board the ship—canned goods, bottled water and a shelter to escape from the elements. Ernesto, an engineer by training, had designed and constructed the boat out of wood on the eastern side of Cuba, in the pueblos outside of Santiago. A dozen people, the founding members of protests held in late 2011, had gathered in the tiny town to launch their flotilla, fearing that the arrest of their leader signaled a crackdown that would come for them next. Near the region where the ship landed that initially carried Fidel Castro and his Communist revolutionaries to Cuba, the leading members of the protests against him now gathered to launch a peaceful protest against his tyranny — an exodus from their homeland into the unknown.
After some time, a fishing boat carrying men with darker skin than the Cubans headed towards them. They foreign men did not speak Spanish, but a language similar to French. They were Haitian fishermen, and the shore in the distance was Hispaniola. The fishermen helped tow the lame vessel to shore, but while the Cuban exiles were grateful to have survived, they were saddened to not have reached the United States.
The refugees sold Ernesto’s homemade boat for $1500, enough for them to live on for a month or two. They located a place to live for what they hoped would be a temporary stay. Days turned into weeks, and then months. Most of the group found jobs, some of them continued on to Mexico where they had family. The others who lacked the funds to continue their journey to Mexico or Miami had become trapped, political prisoners of a different kind.
After six months of paperwork, the nine left behind finally achieved official refugee status, the first step in seeking asylum in any country. Two years slipped away, and they squeaked out a living doing odd jobs at the hospital in Port-de-Paix, on the northwest coast of Haiti.
In early 2014, they made contact with a hospital director in the capital of Port-au-Prince who promised them jobs as physicians, their true profession. The hospital director arranged for a hotel room in the city, and paid for the first four days in advance. Three of the nine refugees, all doctors, traveled six hours by bus to Port-au-Prince and checked into the hotel, carrying only enough money to pay for their trip and food for a couple of days, hoping to find employment to sustain them afterwards. They quickly discovered that the hospital director had left the country for vacation in the United States and nobody knew exactly when he was due to return. At the end of the four days, they begged the hotel proprietor to let them stay another two days. He obliged, but ultimately sent them to the street when they couldn’t pay for those nights.
In two years’ time, the once proud leaders of a movement for democracy spiraled from respected pillars of the community to homeless beggars in the poorest country in the hemisphere. For two years, they languished in diplomatic limbo, unable to return home to Cuba for fear of persecution but with no country, including the United States, willing to grant them permanent residency. Rejected for asylum by the U.S. and five other countries, they reached what appeared to be rock bottom.
They appeared in my internal medicine clinic one Thursday morning, haggard with parched lips. I immediately sized them up for what they were — Cuban doctors looking for jobs. In a country where Haitian doctors are frequently unemployed and at a hospital with no positions to fill, we turn down similar applicants on a monthly basis.
“Somos medicos, como tu.” We are doctors, like you, they said with beseeching eyes. They presented certificates with a stamp and signature of a high ranking UN official in Haiti granting them official status as refugees, papers confirming that they indeed have no home. “We haven’t eaten in two days. We’ve been sleeping on the streets. Our amigo is watching over our stuff while we search for a way to get home to Port-de-Paix.”
As they recounted their tale, I felt a strange sensation of being part of a larger saga, as if our hospital offered a place of respite on the journey to Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings. A fellowship of men, mostly professionals, who had struck out against tyranny, who were now lost in a foreign land, grasping at straws in an attempt to secure employment and basic necessities.
They’ve long since obtained refugee status and now await a country that will welcome them, a process that has stretched on for two years with no end in sight. For all of the anti-Castro rhetoric spewed from the U.S., men who risked their lives for democracy now spend their days cleaning toilets in a hospital in Haiti. The invitation to join families in Miami is not forthcoming, and the sort of people that should be granted asylum in our great nation toil in misery, unsure when or if they’ll find a better life somewhere.
I handed them enough money to get a bus home to Port-de-Paix and to get something to eat — less than $70. It was a small price to hear such an interesting tale and to witness the fellowship of a dozen professionals that fought for democracy, paid a heavy price and now hope to one day claw their way back. Their faces revealed pure gratitude and relief, even at their new menial assignments. But here we now have an engineer happy to work as an electrician and a doctor content to labor as an orderly.
Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and a global public health specialist at the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine and works half time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blogs.