Category Archives: Southeast Region

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!”

Aime’s Story

Post by DCF Secretary David Wilkins

Yesterday and over the past few weeks, we have been holding events in honor of World Refugee Day. More refugees flee to Florida than any other state, and DCF is charged with administering federal funding to refugees to help them acclimate to American culture and society.

This unique population encounters many challenges—from learning English to becoming familiar with modern conveniences, such as indoor plumbing and electricity. Despite these obstacles, we know many refugees who are living in Florida are not only getting by, they are thriving.

Aime Kalangwa

Aime Kalangwa

Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Aime Kalangwa a young man from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Aime and his brother came to Florida in 2011 as the only survivors in their family of their country’s ongoing civil war. They were adopted by a supportive, loving family just as he was beginning his senior year of high school.

With the help of his adoptive parents, Aime tackled cultural and language barriers head-on. He dedicated himself to his studies by working with tutors daily to pass his classes and learn English. Learning American history was particularly challenging because all the material was new. He had never heard of George Washington, the Bill of Rights or the Civil Rights Movement—it was all new to him. But he didn’t just get by; he excelled. His dedication to learning the history of his new country was recognized when he received the award for Outstanding Achievement in American History at his senior awards night.

Today, he continues to pursue his education at Broward College studying Criminal Justice. He is an activist, spokesperson and mentor for other young refugees and is looking forward to becoming an American citizen when he graduates.

Aime’s is just one of the many stories of refugees who flee from war and oppression, build a new life and thrive. Their stories truly inspire and show us that the American dream is alive and well here in Florida.

A Hidden Population of Family Caregivers: Children

Guest blog post by Connie Siskowski, RN, PhD, from Boca Raton. She is the Founder and President of the American Association of Caregiving Youth, which provides information and resources to youth, families and helping professionals, conducts research and promotes awareness of the issue of youth caregiving. The organization is a valued DCF partner.  

When Jason was 13 and in the middle of his 7th grade school year, his mother stopped cleaning the house.  She also stopped cooking. She would stay in bed all day. He didn’t want to bring friends to his house anymore because he worried about what he would find when he got home.

Jason tried his best to keep his mom happy and calm. He cleaned the house. He made her dinner.  Sometimes, he had to take it to her in the bedroom.  They ended up being evicted from their other apartment because of his mom’s changing behaviors.

Jason felt he couldn’t let anyone know about his mother. He knew she had some kind of “mental illness,” but he was afraid to ask for help.

These are the lives of youth caregivers and there are at least 1.3 million of them in the U.S.  They administer medications, assist with mobility and manage household chores. Some provide personal care such as bathing or helping a loved one to the bathroom. Others make sure the bills get paid on time. They have adult responsibilities and experience complicated emotions, but as children and teenagers they are not emotionally equipped to cope with the stress.

Caregiving Youth at Camp Treasure working together and building trust

Jason came to the Caregiving Youth Project, an affiliate of the American Association of Caregiving Youth, in Palm Beach County to participate in our activities and services.

Now he no longer feels like he must keep his mother’s condition a secret. He learned that by asking for help, he could get the support that both he and his mother need.

We sent a staff member to his house to meet him and his mother. Staff helped Jason’s mom contact an agency to help her with her illness. Jason was introduced to other kids his age who were caregivers and now he no longer feels so embarrassed and alone.

If you or someone you know is in need of help and is a caregiving youth, please contact the Caregiving Youth Project at info@aacy.org or call 1-800-725-2512.