My Journey to America

Guest post by Noel Hernandez, a Cuban refugee and American citizen.

Noel Hernandez

Noel, left, at a Hispanic Heritage event in West Palm Beach.

I came to the United States almost six years ago with my wife, 2-year-old little girl, and an almost empty backpack to begin a new life. I was 33 years old at the time.

People from all over the world have come to this fantastic country for many different reasons: they come to escape poverty, get a better life and better opportunities. Most are seeking prosperity, but many others are forced to leave their homeland as a result of circumstance. Like these people, my family and I left to escape the oppression of a repressive communist government of Cuba.

Freedom, for me, is not just a word. It holds a precious value, especially to those of us who have suffered from discrimination for publicly professing a creed or belief. As most of you are aware, in Cuba the majority of our rights as citizens are controlled by the government. Our family, freedom, economy, opinions, and even the religious point of views are generally ruled by the regime. The fact that I come from a Christian family made us suffer under Cuban communism for more than 30 years. Some of my family members were placed in “re-education camps,” others were not able to receive a good education or good jobs. As punishment, they were forced by their teachers to renounce their religious practices.

During my childhood we were pushed to the lowest level of society. We grew to hate the system and were forced to confront it. I suffered from the consequences of those confrontations, religious intolerance of my classmates and later my colleagues.

In one day, all of my political problems would end while I was a teacher at Havana University. I had been teaching there for three years when one morning something unexpected happened. While trying to relieve stress and make my students feel confident before a test I told them, “Don’t worry, God is in control.” Six hours later the university decided to end my contract as a teacher. As you can imagine, everything changed in a blink of an eye.

Being unemployed, it was a struggle to support my family. It was hard for me to find a decent job on the island and eventually my marriage started to feel the negative effects. As a professional, as a father and as a husband I felt I had failed. This was the moment to make a drastic decision, and it’s the best I have ever made.  It was time to move on and find a better place for the three of us, a place where freedom is not a dream. A place where not everything is perfect, but gives you the chance to shape your own destiny. This place is a country that makes you feel that you are an essential part of it, this is America.

Coming here was a bit frightening. It was horribly hard to leave what I had known for more than 30 years. Starting over, facing a new culture, new people and uncertain expectations definitely scared me, but it did not stop me!  Luckily I came with English skills that provided me the opportunity to quickly find a job after four months of being here. I started to work in a hotel as a housekeeping person, a night cleaner. Later I progressed to a supervisor, and finally a manager. Believe me this is something that I’ve learned to admire and respect about this country: it doesn’t matter what you do, when you do it right you keep moving up.

In 2009, after two years in this country, I became an Adult Education teacher, completing the first important step up the ladder of my dreams. I knew eventually the day would come when I would fulfill my dreams and help others come to America too. Since that moment on I have been serving and helping people succeed. Honestly, my role as a teacher/facilitator was not limited to teaching subjects. I also taught my students to be patient and focus on their goals. I helped them understand their possibilities depend on the size of their dreams. I encouraged them to achieve whatever expectations they had and keep a positive attitude no matter the obstacles and difficulties they faced. You have to fight for what you want and it is not an easy road; it demands discipline, sacrifice, and responsibility. However, the rewarding outcome will be worth of all their efforts one day.

I was extremely blessed when I was promoted to Program Administrator in 2010. Working as a Project Transition Refugee Educational Program supervisor has given me the chance to help refugees and asylees in their acculturation process.  Guiding and watching them grow as individuals in a new society makes me feel that all my efforts, my suffering, and all my difficult times were not in vain.

People can think or tell you whatever they want about the immigrant experience in America. The opportunity for me to be here today has a deep and great meaning. I have found many reasons to help others through my circumstances. I am convinced that I am in the perfect place. Not only am I grateful to this country for all that it has given to me, I’m also grateful that America taught me that everything is possible.

In January 2013, I fulfilled another of my biggest goals; I was naturalized here in this office. I swear that it was one of the best days of my life!  Despite my pride of my Hispanic heritage, America is now my country. I hope people never forget that this country is filled with grateful immigrants like me; the United States has given me tremendous support. Now I’m responsible for demonstrating to new immigrants that come here that they must give from the heart in order to receive the best from this land.

As a human being, as a father, as a husband, as an American, now I feel safe, confident and happy. My whole life has changed for the better.  Martin Luther King once said, “I have a dream,” well I have a dream too … right now I’m living the best part of it. I am proud to be a free American, to say without being censured, “Don’t worry, God is in control!”

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