The tip of Florida lies less than a hundred miles north of the island nation of Cuba, but when Yamila decided in 2016 to leave her home country and seek asylum in the United States, she knew a much longer journey lay ahead.
Yamila covered nearly 11,000 miles, crossing 10 international borders before arriving at a port of entry to the United States. Family members had told her she would probably be murdered along the way or die in the jungle, and on several occasions she feared that they had been correct. Still, the pull toward freedom kept her moving forward.
“I never thought how hard it might be,” says Yamila, who began learning English as soon as she settled in the United States a little over two years ago. “I only thought, I need to go to the United States, and I ask God to take care of me.”
Since Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution of 1959, about 1.5 million Cubans have migrated to the United States. Roughly 200,000 left immediately after the revolution; tens of thousands more came in separate waves over the next four decades, mostly by plane or by boat to Florida. Open hostility with Castro’s regime prompted the United States to exerted maximum political and economic pressure on Cuba, while at the same time encouraging its people to flee the regime and take refuge in the U.S.
Faced with a surge of Cubans making the perilous journey across the Florida Straits in tiny boats and homemade rafts, the United States instituted a “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy in the 1990s. Cubans who were intercepted on the water were returned to Cuba, and only those who made it to the Florida coast received asylum.
Yamila, who was born in 1972, is part of a new wave of refugees. Spurred in recent years by a relaxation of visa restrictions, more Cubans began taking circuitous paths to the United States. Thousands began traveling south to Brazil and then connecting with caravans headed through the Amazon jungle and across the treacherous Darien Gap, a swath of mountainous rainforest that connects South and Central America. From there, they make their way to the Mexican border.
When the Obama Administration began normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014, Cuban dissidents correctly anticipated that this would bring an end to their privileged status as asylum seekers, prompting another spike in defections. When Yamila got caught up in a conflict between police and protesters, she decided to join the exodus. “In Cuba, there are no human rights, no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion,” Yamila says. “If I say, ‘Castro is bad,’ the police can arrest me.”
Although Yamila didn’t denounce the communist government while she was still in Cuba, she says she refused an order from a police officer to assault one of the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, who have been protesting the incarceration of husbands and other relatives since a 2003 roundup of political prisoners. The Damas are sometimes arrested themselves, and Yamila says she feared she might join them. Soon after the incident, Yamila began making plans to seek asylum in the United States. She got a visa to visit Guyana for a few days, but she stuffed a backpack with survival gear and told her mother and two daughters that she would never be coming back. Afraid that she might lose her nerve at the airport, Yamila kissed her mother goodbye, then turned and ran to her plane.
From Guyana, she caught a flight to Brazil. She would cover the remaining 7,000 miles by foot, canoe or horseback. Indian smugglers took her through the Amazon jungle, where boa constrictors and caimans lurk in the waterways and jaguars rule the jungle. Yamila had brought penicillin and antibiotics along, which helped keep her moving after being bitten by poisonous ants.
“There was no path. It was terrible,” Yamila says. “We walked all day; we only stopped to sleep. When we were finally outside the jungle, I fell in the doorway of the house where we stayed. I was hurt all over my body. I had been four days without food. We had only river water keeping us alive. Sometimes it was green. Sometimes it was brown.”
After they crossed into Columbia, officers arrested her. “They wanted to return me to Peru,” says Yamila. “I said I would prefer dying.” One of the officers helped Yamila get a boat ride up the coast to a spot where migrant caravans enter the Darien Gap. No one has ever cut a highway through the dense forests and mountains of this region. Even greater than the natural dangers are the risks posed by rebel groups, local militias and drug traffickers.
“Many Cubans die there,” Yamila says of the Gap, which increasingly claims the lives of refugees from Africa and the Middle East who also travel to South America in hopes of finding safety in the United States.
Yamila passed by remains of others who never made it out of the Gap, and on at least one occasion was sure she would join them. At night in the rain, she and her companions were creeping down a mountainside when they lost their footing. Yamila’s shoes flew off her feet and she and her friends went careening down the muddy mountainside.
“Yamila! We die!” Yamila remembers hearing a voice scream in the darkness as she grasped at roots and tree trunks rushing past. Eventually, they stopped sliding. For the remainder of the descent, Yamila strained to listen for the sound of rushing water that meant they had nearly reached the bottom. “When I hear the sound of the river, I thank God,” Yamila says.
Once they cleared the gap, they still had to cross through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. As the forest thinned, their chances of being caught by authorities increased. It took Yamila five attempts to make it into Honduras. Each time she was arrested, she landed in the same holding facility in Costa Rica. By this time, Yamila was out of money, but a woman who worked at the camp brought her food and enough money to pay smugglers and bribe officials for the journey ahead. “She didn’t know me, and she helped me,” says Yamila. “Many people helped me in my travels. The Mexican people were wonderful. I think always God helped me.”
By the time she reached Mexico, Yamila had seen 17 other Cubans deported. Two pregnant women somehow made it through the Darien Gap with her. One gave birth in Panama; the second held out until she got to Mexico. Another young mother nearly lost her baby crossing a river. Yamila helped her cling to the child as they made their way through water that rose above their heads. An older man suffered a heart attack and another woman broke her leg climbing a mountain. Neither of them completed their journey. In Guatemala, Yamila heard a young girl crying out as she was being attacked by a group of men. Yamila cried with her but could not stop the attack. She heard reports of four Cubans who were killed in Mexico.
“I would not want anyone to go through that,” Yamila says of the journey that exceeded even her darkest fears. Still, she has trouble thinking of herself as either brave or reckless. She came, she says, because she had to leave Cuba. She kept pushing on because the alternative was death.
Yamila spent seven days at the National Institute of Immigration at Tapachula, Mexico, on the border with Guatemala. A week later, with bare feet, tattered clothes and no money, she presented herself at the U.S. border. It was Jan. 12, 2017, exactly one day after President Obama ended the policy of automatically granting asylum to any Cuban who set foot on American soil. She would spend four months at holding facilities in Texas before being allowed into the country. She relocated to Rochester in 2018 and is awaiting her Green Card, which will allow her to get a job.
While she’s been waiting, she’s completed training programs in customer service, removing asbestos and handling hazardous materials, but her dream is to return to teaching, her profession in Cuba. As soon as she’s eligible, she intends to apply for a job in a school and enroll in college to obtain teacher certification. And as she’s learning English, she’ll be writing in her new language. She wants to tell her story to as many people in her new country as possible, so that they know what it means to live without freedom and how important it is to protect what they have.
“I’m very grateful to be in the United States,” she says. “It’s an incredible country. Here I can find freedom. I can talk; I can think. This is my country now.”