The first reaction to a visit to Freedom House is surprise. Newly arrived at the U.S. Government's big converted Army barracks on the perimeter if Miami International Airport, Cuban refugees look relaxed and smile as they stroll around the lobby and green grounds, talking a lot, embracing friends.
Children tumble about a well-equipped playground. Contrary to what you might have been told, you see more youngsters and middle-age couples than old people among the newcomers.
Only an estimated one-third of the refugees on the government's twice daily Freedom Flights from Varadero arrive alone.
"They're not relaxed when they first get off the plane. They're tense and afraid to speak aloud until they're given permission.
It takes them several hours to realize they're really here at last. So many things can hold them up at the last minute," says a spokesman for the National Catholic Welfare Conference, which processes about 60 percent of current arrivals.
But the atmosphere is reassuringly familiar as they're expedited with as little red tape as possible though two hours of immigration proceedings, a medical check-up, and assignment to a gratis room in the plain but comfortable Freedom House. The blue skies and waving palms look like their nearby homeland, Spanish is about the only language they hear spoken, and kind priests and nuns
and local representatives of other religious faiths hover around to offer aid and information.
Besides the Catholic Conference, United HIAS, the world-wide Jewish migration agency, the International Rescue League and Church World
Service are there to help them scout jobs and contact the relatives they'll join.
A doll for a child, a kit of comfort articles for adults can cheer up a family who had to leave Cuba with little more than the clothes - minus expensive jewels - they could wear.
La Esenelita, "this little school" in a room adjoining the playground, absorbs children getting their first taste of learning English.
The English language is hardly a required course in Castro's schools. Most young children speak none at all. At least one parent
can usually speak a little.
The harsh realities if adjusting ti a strange land will hit home later. The refugees - except those who have relatives in
Miami to claim them - will be fanning out for resettlement all over the country, some to cities where Latin newcomers are still curiosities. Most will leave Freedom House, airline ticket and expenses again courtesy of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, within 48 hours of their arrival.
Typical arrivals recently were Mr. and Mrs. Sabino Fernandez and their sons Lazaro, six, and Edgar, three. While the adult Fernandezes were processed, their sons unconcernedly took turns on the playground slide with three youngsters who had survived a harrowing trip, six to a small boat, from Cuba. The children didn't talk about their trips. Yesterday was yesterday, around today was tricycles to ride and toy trucks to pull along.
The future looks comparatively bright for the Fernandez family. Slightly built, alert-eyed Fernandez has in in-demand job skill as a mechanic and speaks a little English. He is schedules to join several relatives well established in the jewelry
business in Los Angeles, with it's large Spanish-speaking population. He plans ti enroll his children in a regular public school although they speak no English. "Children pick up languages without effort just by association," he says.
Like most if the current refugees he first registered his intention to leave Cuba about three years before the family finally made the Freedom Flight. Like others, he promptly lost his skilled job in a factory and was put to work in the fields while he waited.