Missing the Cues

23 Defect at World Youth Day in Toronto - Right in Front of My Face

The Cuban exile now living in Canada told the Cubans at the World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto: “If there is any way I can help you at all, please let me know.”

Ismael Sambra spoke these words to a group of young adult Cubans at a picnic I attended during the pope�s visit there. I thought Sambra was just showing some northern hospitality.

I totally missed it. Actually he was offering passage on Toronto’s underground railroad for freedom-seeking Catholic Cubans. Political asylum. The picnic was July 27. On July 28, it was reported that some 23 of the 200 Cubans attending World Youth Day had defected.

Ismael Sambra, in interviews, said he was coordinating safe housing and legal aid for them
How did I miss this? I was surprised but shouldn’t have been. Offers of help can mean drastically different things for Cubans depending on what comes after the hyphen that follows Cuban.

For me, a Cuban-American living in Los Angeles, World Youth Day was a fun, inspiring, and rejuvenating spiritual event. Any help I needed was limited to finding a taxi, getting a restaurant recommendation, buying an extra water bottle.

But for Cuban-Cubans�a people who can never escape their politics�World Youth Day offered a singular opportunity. The chance to stake out a claim for freedom of speech, decent paying jobs, respect, and dignity.

I’m learning that to live under the radar of the Cuban police or communist block captains, young Cubans have learned the survival language of innuendo, nuance, and subtlety.

If they ever get out to visit another country and you offer to help them, they know what that means (and it’s not an extra bottle of water). They know this is the biggest decision of their lives�to go back to Cuba and fight the good fight, or to risk everything for a brand new as-yet-to-be-determined life.

One Cuban pilgrim who flew back to Cuba e-mailed me saying the desertion of the 23 left a bad taste in his mouth. Yet he could understand why some decided to flee “the great jail without bars.”

What to do with a beautiful island country wrapped by gorgeous beaches that has become a stifling prison for too many?

Today’s Catholic Cubans have a mission to rebuild faith and hope for a disappointed people living in poverty and repression. World Youth Day was supposed to give them the strength to keep going.

I have to admit I felt torn about the defectors. They chose their individual lives over the chance to make a powerful difference for their country and their people.

And yet my own grandparents and parents also chose to leave their country and their community to give their children a better life in the United States. It broke their hearts to have to make that decision. They prayed, cried, and shook. They railed their fists at God and sought his consolation.

In the past two weeks God’s listened to newly breaking Cuban hearts, those who stayed in Canada and those who went back to Cuba. He has stood by each person’s side, even when they could not stand together.