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June 23, 2017

I Was a Refugee

Refugee: a person who leaves his or her home or country to find safety, especially during a war or for political or religious reasons. Captain Teresa Della Monica gives a personal perspective of what it is like.

Refugee, displacement, relocation, asylum, a polarizing political theme that can conjure fearful thoughts of uncertainty.

Without a doubt, a horde of people displaced, needing to be re-housed can create a near panic situation. It brings to mind a country overrun by foreigners. We think of people living in tents, hungry, requiring ourfinancial resources, the crimes, the incarcerations, disorder.

As a nation, we have already witnessed a barrage of foreigners climbing into rafts willing to confront the perils of the open sea in the hopes offinding freedom.

Captain Teresa Della Monica

In today’s climate, as countries debate back and forth about responsibility toward the refugee, we watch from the safety of our living rooms, while people young and old from all around the globe seek asylum, seek a helping hand, seek a voice on their behalf.

How hard it is to relate to anything that you are not clear about or comfortable with.

I was born in Cuba, on the cusp of communism. Both of my parents were Cuban, and except for my paternal grandmother who was a Spaniard, my grandparents and great-grandparents were Cuban as well.

Prior to the Castro revolution, Cuba enjoyed seasons of lavishness, famous for its beaches and nightclubs.

 However, behind the façade, it also fell victim to much debauchery, disgrace and darkness. Well known for its coveted cigars and rum, dance girls and the Tropicana, Cuba gave us Desi Arnaz from I Love Lucy, Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcia and Jose Canseco. Cuba also served as the trading block for the African slave industry. It was amid turmoil, uncertainty, chaos and hunger that people lived their lives.

In the mid to late 1950s Cuba once again found itself in the midst of despair, money becoming worthless, those with availablefinances, began the initial great exodus to the United States, moving into Tampa and Miami, as is evident by the Cuban influence there.

When parents could not leave the country, they boarded their children onflights headed to the USA. Theflights, known as the Peter Pan Flights, arrived in Miami. Once there, the children were met and housed by the church clergy as they awaited the arrival of their parents.

On October 6, 1966, my family and I left Cuba as refugees, seeking asylum in the United States.  We left the island nation on United Airlines Freedom Flights.  Financially pledged by members of our family, we became residents of the State of New Jersey.  Our family had rented a basement apartment for us, which they also furnished.  I remember the sadness and depression that my mother grew into while we were there.  She longed for her mother and the life she once knew. 

Our city had seen its fair share of foreign influences.  Once dominated by the Germans and then the Italians, our community mostly consisted of other Hispanic immigrants. Ours was a small tight-knit community, all needing each other in order to withstand the isolation and newness of our new environment.   My parents suffered, I know they did.  A new language, a new climate, a new lifestyle. A new way of thinking. Always holding on to the hope of returning to their homeland one day. 

My siblings and I, because we were younger, eased into our new environment with less stress.  We quickly picked up our new language and discovered that we could use it to our advantage when we did not want our parents to know what we were saying.  Then again, children area easily molded to change.

Displacement can be a traumatic event. A person might find herself at the center of a volatile situation that had nothing to do with creating. And the situation is worse if children are involved. You are not only fighting for your life, but for the life of them as well. You must learn to simultaneously embrace your new environment, learn a new language and begin the process of merging into a different mindset, all the time not wanting to compromise your heritage or identity. 

For years I struggled with not knowing where I actually belonged. I spoke Spanish at home and knew I was Cuban, yet at the same time very American. Even hearing your name pronounced in a new way can be traumatic and confusing. And in becoming a poorly adjusted teenager, it became a nightmare.

This country has always had refugees. Native Americans witnessed some of the first refugees, the pilgrims who journeyed here in hopes of finding political and religious freedom.  Along the way, the United States has opened its borders and its arms to many foreigners in need of help.  I want to believe that as a great nation, we will do the right thing when we see that our neighbors are in need of a hand.

I am not trying to persuade anyone currently on either side of the proverbial “refugee” fence, but only to share my story, my life as a refugee.

I Kings 8:41-44 says:

As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel, but has come from a distant land because of your name, for they will hear of your great name—and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.

I am a Salvation Army officer, commissioned in June of 2014, living in Tampa, FL. I was a Cuban refugee, a foreigner, in need of a safe dwelling place.  I heard the Good News of Jesus Christ in this country. I came to know the Lord Jesus Christ in this country and believed unto salvation. This country opened its arms to me and my family and for that, I am thankful. My heritage will always be Cuban-American, but my heart and my faithfulness will always belong to The Lord.

Learn how the Army helps refugees in 16 European countries assimilate to their new environments at


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