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Nearly 50 Years Later, Cuban-Americans Recall Fleeing as Children


More than two million Cubans have left the island since Fidel Castro took power 50 years ago and turned Cuba into a communist country.

One of the first waves of migration started shortly after he took over, and included more than 14,000 children traveling without their parents.

The trips that began in 1960 evolved into a massive operation that became the largest migration of unaccompanied children in U.S. history.

A Cuban passport is one of the few things Silvia Wilhelm has left from her life growing up in Havana. At 14, she was an aspiring athlete when she left in 1961, with a small suitcase and a few dollars sewn into her dress. "I was a pretty good swimmer," Wilhelm recalls. "I left 85 medals behind and, of course, never saw them again. That is what I hate the most."

Wilhelm arrived in Miami as Fidel Castro was securing his hold in Cuba. She said her mother, who joined her later in Miami, thought their stay in Florida would last only a couple months.
"They really thought like many did at the time, the government was going too far to the left," she said. "There were rumors that Fidel Castro was a communist."

Scores of Cuban families felt the same way. The U.S. Information Agency made an orientation film to address the flow of Cuban children into Miami. Nearly 8,000 so-called Pedro Pan children stayed in foster care, awaiting the arrival of their parents or relatives from Cuba. Some waited years while their families struggled to obtain exit visas from Castro's government.

The film is part of an extensive collection at Barry University in Miami. Sister Dorothy Jehle is in charge of Pedro Pan materials at the Catholic school. Catholic leaders in Cuba helped arrange flights for children off the island. In Miami, Sister Dorothy says the local priest, Father Brian Walsh, saw that some children had nowhere to go.

"Father Walsh discovered this and talked to the bishop, and the bishop said immediately we have to do something," Sister Dorothy said. "Whatever you can work out."

Volunteers in Pedro Pan kept a registry of children arriving at Miami airport. Father Walsh ran a boarding home for several young men, while foster homes across the country took in children.

"I know there were nights I cried myself to sleep, thinking of my parents I had not seen in years, and missing them," Jorge Finlay said. He was 11 when he arrived in Miami. His father was an airline executive, and both of his parents remained in Cuba to help other children get on flights out of the country. "I marvel at the courage required to do that, he said. "Because they did spend two weeks in jail."

Finlay was reunited with his parents after two years in foster care. But he says other Pedro Pan children were not as lucky. "Not every story had a happy ending, he said. "Eventually we got back with our parents, the overwhelming majority of us. But some of us did not."

This month, Cuba's communist government celebrates 50 years in power. In a speech, President Raul Castro made no mention of the 14,000 children of Pedro Pan.

In Miami, Silvia Wilhelm says the experience has left a powerful mark on the first generation of Cuban exiles. "I think we as Cubans need to sit down and study this very seriously because it was a major exodus," Wilhelm said. "It never happened before in the history of the Western hemisphere and I hope it never happens again."

Several waves of Cuban migrants have arrived in Miami since Pedro Pan. For the children who came alone, they say it is important their history is not forgotten.

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