No place to call home - Cuban na­tion­als move in­to open field

Monday, February 4, 2019 - 19:30

Fifty-nine Cubans who are seek­ing refugee sta­tus in T&T are liv­ing in de­plorable and un­san­i­tary con­di­tions on a par­cel of agri­cul­tur­al land in War­renville, Cunu­pia.

They moved there af­ter over­stay­ing their time at a near­by ware­house pro­vid­ed by a busi­ness­man.

Last No­vem­ber, po­lice charged them for block­ing the pave­ment in Port-of-Spain af­ter they camped out­side the UN House.

On Mon­day, the Cuban mi­grants, most of whom have been seek­ing asy­lum to an­oth­er coun­try claimed their sit­u­a­tion was be­ing side­lined by the Unit­ed Na­tions High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees (UN­HCR) and the Gov­ern­ment. They plead­ed for im­me­di­ate in­ter­ven­tion.

Three months ago, 87 Cuban na­tion­als were ar­rest­ed af­ter they protest­ed out­side the Unit­ed Na­tions of­fice on Chancery Lane, Port-of-Spain. They were charged with ob­struct­ing of a free pas­sage­way and sen­tenced to two days in prison.

Fol­low­ing the Cubans' re­lease, Sheik Lisha Ltd busi­ness­man Churchill Azad Akaloo opened up his heart and his War­renville ware­house for them to stay for one month, but he lat­er ex­tend­ed their time to 75 days.

An­dris Moi­set Gon­za­lez, one of the 59 refugees, who spoke on be­half of the group said they had to leave the ware­house on Feb­ru­ary 1, af­ter over­stay­ing their time.

"Mr Akaloo treat­ed us very well. He even ex­tend­ed the time for us to stay and for that we are grate­ful," Gon­za­lez said.

With no place to go, Fer­oza Mo­hammed, 50, and her com­mon-law hus­band Al­fred Mar­tin, 65, who live a stone's throw from Akaloo's ware­house came to their res­cue of­fer­ing them two lots of un­used agri­cul­tur­al land from their one-acre par­cel. One group of 28, most­ly women and chil­dren moved in­to an apart­ment build­ing.

Of the 59 refugees, 22 are women. The Cuban mi­grants' ages range from 22 to 65.

The cou­ple who op­er­ates a shop in the com­mu­ni­ty sells items dai­ly to the Cubans.

"My heart went out to the refugees when they told me they had no place to go. I couldn't al­low them to live on the streets. That would have been heart­less," Mo­hammed said.

Mo­hammed said she has been us­ing mon­ey from her pock­et to main­tain their guests who af­fec­tion­ate­ly call her "Moth­er."

She ad­mit­ted that the agri­cul­tur­al land be­longs to Ca­roni (1975) Ltd which is lo­cat­ed next to her home.

"I have been plant­i­ng on the land for 40 years. Some of the pro­duce that I reap is used to feed the Cubans," Mar­tin said.

Tot­ing mat­tress­es and bags of clothes, 59 refugees moved in­to the par­cel of land where they con­struct­ed a string of makeshift tents us­ing tar­pau­lins and strips of plas­tic.

"For the past four days, this is where we have been liv­ing...un­der harsh and dirty con­di­tions. We are opened to the el­e­ments in­clud­ing crim­i­nals. We have not been tak­ing any chances as some of us have been stand­ing guard at nights while oth­ers sleep," said Ernesto Estra­da.

Estra­da said he fled his coun­try 18 months ago due to eco­nom­ic in­sta­bil­i­ty and po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion.

Oth­ers have been in Trinidad for over three years with­out work per­mits and prop­er doc­u­men­ta­tion.

He ad­mit­ted their new refugee camp was un­sight­ly and at­tract­ed un­want­ed at­ten­tion.

They have no pipe-borne wa­ter and they use one bath­room and an out­house.

Scat­tered on the ground were sev­er­al mat­tress­es and pieces of cloth­ing.

Stacked in a cor­ner was a small heap of gro­cery items do­nat­ed by res­i­dents and church groups.

Near­by, an un­cov­ered pot with red beans and rice was swarmed with flies.

There were al­so dirty dish­es in a plas­tic sink.

When the Guardian Me­dia vis­it­ed the camp be­fore 8 am yes­ter­day, many of the camp res­i­dents were still asleep.

Some were seen drink­ing cof­fee while oth­ers brushed their teeth at the side of the road.

Estra­da ad­mit­ted that the con­di­tions were not ide­al but noth­ing more could be done.

On Sun­day, some­one do­nat­ed sev­er­al sheets of gal­vanise.

"We are go­ing to pull down the tar­pau­lins and pieces of plas­tics and erect a stur­dier struc­ture us­ing the gal­vanise sheet­ing to pre­vent us from get­ting wet and pro­tect us from the blis­ter­ing sun," Estra­da said.

"We want asy­lum out­side of T&T but every­thing is tak­ing too long. The Unit­ed Na­tions is not do­ing any­thing to help us. It seems as though we are on our own," Gon­za­lez said.

Akaloo did not re­spond to a mes­sage left by Guardian Me­dia.

An of­fi­cial of the Cuban Em­bassy said they were not aware of the refugees' plight and had no of­fi­cial state­ment to is­sue on the mat­ter.

"The Cubans who are seek­ing this asy­lum nev­er came to the em­bassy for any con­sular ser­vice," an em­ploy­ee from the em­bassy said.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Unit­ed Na­tions in T&T said they are aware of the Cubans' sit­u­a­tion.

"And we are mon­i­tor­ing it close­ly. That is our du­ty," she said.

- by Shaliza Hassanali. Photo by Abraham Diaz.