Cuban community grows with refugees

For more than 10 years, Jose Noa fought for human rights in Cuba, an activity that didn't sit well with the Cuban government.

So the only way to live in peace was to leave his island home, he said.

In 2005, he sought political asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and recently arrived with his wife and daughter in Chattanooga, the latest Cuban refugee family to make the Scenic City its new home.

"We felt happy and relieved when we touched American soil," Mr. Noa, 43, said in Spanish.

"You feel happy because you are free," added his wife Sandra Acosta in Spanish, sitting in their Southside apartment.

Working through the bureaucratic process to be allowed to leave Cuba took almost five years: three years to secure their first interview with the U.S government; another before their second interview when they were approved to come to America, and finally, another year to get a flight from Cuba.

"It's really bad because they tell you that you are going to leave but they don't say when. Meanwhile the Cuban government knows you are leaving," Ms. Acosta said.

During the last 10 years, the number of Cuban families settling in Chattanooga has grown significantly, according to other Cubans. And that number is expected to continue to grow.

Last year, 13 Cuban refugees resettled here with the help of Bridge Refugee Services, a local agency that helps resettle refugees from around the world. So far, six Cubans refugees have arrived this year, with 21 others are expected to come by the end of the year.

Ediee cqPerez, an interpreter who works with Bridge resettling Spanish speakers, primarily Cubans, estimates there are between 35 and 40 Cuban families in the Chattanooga area.

With the exception of a few who have moved to other states where they have relatives, most of them have decided to stay in Chattanooga, said Marina Peshterianu, office manager for Bridge.

"As years pass, I think more and more Cubans choose to come to the U.S. and try to rebuild their lives, not based on where they have relatives but where they will find jobs," Mrs. Peshterianu said.

TENNESSEE* There are 3,657 people born in Cuba now living in Tennessee.Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2008 American Community SurveyCUBAN REFUGEE AND ENTRANT ARRIVALS IN U.S.: FISCAL YEARS 1999 TO 2008* 2004: 2,980* 2005: 6,360* 2006: 3,143* 2007: 2,922* 2008: 4,177Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System.

Other Cuban arrivals in Chattanooga have been long-term U.S. residents who have moved from states such as Florida or New Jersey, where 80 percent of the foreign-born Cuban population lives, according to U.S. census data.

The story of Cuban immigrants has been a very Florida-specific story and continues to remain a very Floridaspecific story," said Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.

There are close to 1 million Cubans in the United States and more than 700,000 live in Florida, according to the Census American Community Survey of 2008.

But immigration is a network phenomenon, Ms. Mittelstadt said.

"As immigrants start moving beyond their traditional destinations and you have small numbers of them move to new locations, they spread the word back to their relatives and friends and associates, basically talking about the life they are living in a new community and the opportunities they have, whether it is economically or educationally," Ms. Mittelstadt added.

Haydee Perez-Parra moved to the Chattanooga area in 1998 from New York City to study at Southern Adventist University.

"I started with my undergraduate (degree) at Southern," said the 38-year-old clinical therapist. "I didn't think I was going to stay here but then I finished my master's and met my husband at school."

"Being a Cuban myself, I see it as a perfect place to introduce someone from another country into the American culture because Southerners are very friendly," she added.

After she moved to the area, her parents, siblings, friends and even her brothers-in-laws followed.

"I really promote the area," she said.

For Jose Noa and Sandra Acosta, the most important thing is for them to find jobs and be able to rebuild their lives, the couple said. It doesn't matter where.

"I wouldn't move to Miami - despite the large Cuban community - because there's a lot of unemployment," Ms. Acosta said. "If I'm coming to the United States to be able to work and change my life so my daughter can have an opportunity, what am I going to do in Miami?"

But if they can't find employment here, they say they are willing to move to wherever they need to.