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Fight for survival on the streets of PoS

Cuban ‘dissidents’ come to T&T, seeking asylum in the United States
Published: 
Sunday, December 17, 2017

The time was 10.44 on Tuesday night when Guardian’s photo editor Micheal Bruce drove on to Chancery Lane in Port-of-Spain, while I sat in the front passenger seat of his car. Chancery Lane was still and silent.

As we drove past three makeshift tarpaulin tents on the pavement on the left hand side of the street there was no visible sign of life and I feared that we had come too late to meet the Cubans who were said to be living here.

Originally we intended to reach Chancery Lane around 8.30 pm to spend some time with the Cubans but traffic gridlock caused by an accident in Diego Martin threw a wrench in those plans.

So when Bruce pulled aside and parked on Chancery Lane two hours later than we planned, I thought we missed our opportunity. But as soon as he cut off the engine and we opened the doors to the car a man exited one of the tarpaulin tents. He looked at us curiously. The night’s silence was then broken by a baby crying. The crying threw me off because I could not believe anyone was inside those flimsy looking makeshift tents, far less a baby.

After we signalled that we were “press”, one by one adults and children began to exit the tents.

Chancery Lane came alive.

Yusnel Reyes, the first person to exit the tents, said he spoke a little English. None of the others spoke English. Neither Bruce nor I were conversant in Spanish but we hoped technology would help us bridge the divide.

In all, 18 Cubans, including five children, were living inside those makeshift tents, Reyes said.

The baby we heard crying was Reyes’ one-year-old son, Liusnel Perez.

Baby Liusnel had just been falling asleep but jumped because of his father’s sudden movement.

His mother, Lisandra Perez, cradled him as she tried to get him back to sleep. His bright eyes said it would be a while until he did again.

As I stood conversing as best I could with Reyes, his mother Yaneisy Santana, with three-year-old Enmanuel Arbolaez in her arms, came walking toward the camp from the direction of the Queen’s Park Savannah.

Two of the other Cuban children Ailys, 17 and Melany Arbolaez, nine, were also with them as they returned to the Port-of-Spain pavement they now called home.

The first group of these self proclaimed “Cuban dissidents” arrived in T&T on November 8 last year.

Using Google Translate and Whatsapp, Reyes claimed the group fled Cuba because they were persecuted for “being peaceful opponents to the totalitarian regime of the Castro brothers”.

“We came by plane, selling everything we had in Cuba, we fled our homes due to repressions by the Government,” Reyes wrote.

Reyes and the 17 other Cubans came in as visitors and have now become asylum seekers.

At the mercy of the weather and bandits

Living on the streets, they are at the mercy of the elements. As we stood talking to them, the breeze blew coldly on Chancery Lane.

Sheets and pillows on the pavement acted as their beds.

Earlier in the day, they had to deal with flooding as a result of heavy rainfall in Port-of-Spain.

Jose Asension pulled out his cellphone as he showed us video footage he captured of the situation.

Their humble settings have, however, not stopped the Cubans from being targeted by bandits and other attackers.

Last month, someone threw an explosive device at the group, causing injury to two of the men.

Their gas cylinder has been the envy of other homeless people in the area, Reyes said.

In fact that is why he was so quick to respond when Bruce stopped the vehicle earlier.

It was his turn to act as sentry.

It was therefore a bit comforting to see a police vehicle pass around 11.25 pm.

When the vehicle passed it slowed down and greeted the Cubans before driving off.

Eventually, as the night wore on, it became apparent that the things we sometimes take for granted are actually cumbersome for others.

With a pipe some distance away, Ramon Arbolaez opted to wash his arms in the running water from a nearby pothole.

It was then I asked Reyes where they bathe and clean themselves.

The men use a pipe near the National Museum while the women use one near the National Academy for the Performing Arts, he said. A cut portion of a plastic bottle is used as the dipper.

Lisandra Farray and Reyes took me to see the places.

To use the toilet they go to the savannah where there is washroom facilities, go to the nearby restaurants or use the Living Water facilities.

As the time ticked away, it became evident that they had somehow gotten accustomed to their current living conditions.

They laughed, hugged and smiled with each other as though they were comfortable in this place.

“At 5 am we are more or less awake because we have to organise everything,” Reyes said.

As the sun rises in the sky the Cubans move to the opposite side of the road to get shelter.

It is a routine that they have become accustomed to.

T&T third in the region for asylum seekers

In the region, T&T is the third most popular country for asylum seekers behind Belize and the Dominican Republic respectively.

As of May this year, there were 336 applications for asylum in this country. In 2016 there were 163 asylum applications. Cubans account for the largest number of asylum seekers in T&T.

Asylum seekers are people who have sought international protection and whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined.

A person is a refugee if they fulfil the criteria set out in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

It is during this time frame of waiting to be granted refugee status that these Cubans started living on the pavement.

According to the Living Water Foundation’s Ministry for Asylum seekers and Refugees, the group declined housing assistance from the non-governmental organisation.

The decision by the Cubans to choose Chancery Lane as their home was because it is the location of the United Nations.

“We have been protesting for 52 days, we demand that the United Nations respect our human rights and that they comply with their migratory agreement and re-establish us in a third country where we can live in freedom, with equal rights, children can have access to health and education,” Reyes stated.

That “third country” that Reyes referred to is the United States.

It is where they want to eventually resettle.

Speaking to the Sunday Guardian, the UNHCR’s protection officer Ruben Barbado said it was “worrying” that there are now children living in the makeshift tents.

“They want to go to the US but unfortunately there is nothing we can do about it because that is not in our hands,” Barbado said.

T&T has a refugee policy but there is no legislation. This country acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in November 2000. To date, these have not been incorporated into domestic legislation but the drafting process to do so is under way. A refugee policy adopted in 2014 by the Cabinet envisions the Government providing recognised refugees a permit of stay, work authorisation and access to public assistance.Asylum seekers who wish to claim protection in T&T are bound by the Immigration Act and its regulations which include not being able to work or attend school.

Calls to Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon’s phone went unanswered.

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