Increasing numbers of Cubans mean connections and community are crucial.

As the number of Cubans migrating to the United States continues to increase, Bridge Refugee Services has been welcoming those landing in East Tennessee by connecting them to one another and community resources.

“Since October, more than 80,000 Cubans have arrived across the US,” said Bridge Case Manager Lydia Tarry.

Roughly 60 who made their way to East Tennessee under the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program have contacted Bridge’s Knoxville office for help. The program allows Cuban nationals to temporarily enter the US for urgent humanitarian reasons, among others. If they want to stay, they need to apply for and be granted asylum.

“They reach out to us,” said Bridge Case Manager Anna Brawner. “Sometimes, they just literally show up at our door because they heard about us through a friend.”

Most are hesitant to speak about their experiences for fear of hurting their chances of getting work permits or asylum in the US.

“There are a lot of factors at play, but they are very determined people,” Tarry said. “They come here without any help from the US government. They don’t get funded travel. A lot of them end up living all together in big groups and find their own housing with friends who moved here previously.”

August 2022

As the legal distinction “entrants”, they aren’t eligible for the same level of services offered to “refugees”, “asylees”, or “humanitarian parolees” by resettlement organizations like Bridge, but that hasn’t stopped Bridge from being able to assist them in other ways.

“When Cubans enter the US, they are given a document that is essentially their entrance status and that document can be supplemented with a ‘parole stamp’ and that’s what’s needed to apply for benefits,” Tarry said.

Tarry and Brawner have been able to help them apply for social services, including cash assistance and medical referrals, enroll them in English language learning classes, provide case management, and help with job training and other employment services.

Only those with a parole stamp can apply for work permits, however.

“All of our clients have or will apply for their (work permits), but there’s a super long wait on those approvals,” Brawner said. “I had a client apply back in October and she is still waiting on her Employment Authorization Document (EAD).”

On August 27, Bridge partnered with Lincoln Memorial University to offer a workshop for those needing help with their work permit application. Roughly 30 clients from Cuba attended.

“It is not an easy document to fill out, and legal counsel needs to help you fill it out,” Tarry said.

The workshop provided access to lawyers at no cost so clients could complete their applications, as well as information about the next steps clients without a parole stamp should take.

“When our clients get here, one of the first things they ask is, ‘When can I start working?’ and it is hard to be the bearer of the bad news and have to tell them, ‘I’m sorry. You can’t work until you get employment authorization, and you can’t get that without parole,’” Tarry said.

Earlier in August, Bridge also hosted a gathering for 21 of its Cuban clients so they could meet one another, share a meal served by volunteers from Christ Community Church, and learn about community resources available to them outside of Bridge.

Tarry said the event was one way Bridge could serve as a source of encouragement during an uncertain time.

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“We saw a gap in service where we couldn’t meet some needs, and that challenged us to think about other ways to provide quality service to clients that are in tough situations and trying to make the best of life in America with very little guidance,” she said. “We wanted to have that gathering because there were so many of the stories we were hearing that were very similar from clients. In our minds, we wished they could talk to one another and share some of this with one another and know they were not alone and were going through the same things.”

Many, for instance, had to leave behind spouses and children in Cuba, Brawner said.

“We did a presentation for cultural orientation where we discussed topics like important US laws and how to get a driver’s license,” she said. “Also, it was an opportunity for them to share a meal together and meet other people in similar situations and from similar backgrounds. It was great to have a lot of our clients in the same place and watching them interact and have shared culture and an opportunity to just be together.”

By holding the event at the Fountain City Library, Brawner said Bridge was also able to connect them with a valuable community resource.

“We had a couple that could apply for and get library cards, and that has opened up another part to their social adjustment,” she said.

The feedback Bridge received after the event was positive.

“It was the first event of its kind, and it went really well, so we will hopefully have others,” she said. “One of Lydia’s clients said, ‘For us, it was a blessing to learn about all these things. You’ve given us so many things and taught us so much. For us, you’ve been a channel from God to bless our lives. Thank you so much.’”

Part of their job as case managers, Tarry said, is helping their clients stay hopeful.

August 2022

“The encouragement is in the small wins,” she said. “When we are successful in finding them food assistance or volunteers willing to help transport them places, or they find an ESL class that is really comfortable for them, those sorts of things are small wins to encourage them and give them hope things will get better. We try our best to be encouraging and come at it hopefully, but truthfully.”

The case managers said they have been able to refer many clients to community partners, including Cherokee Health Systems for medical screenings, Beardsley Community Farm for local produce, Center for English for English lessons, Centro Hispano for rent assistance, Adelante for immigration legal assistance, and local churches that operate food, clothing and diaper banks.

“I’ve been really thankful we have a really good partnership base we can connect our clients to,” Tarry said. “It helps them get rooted in our community and meet people. It’s been a really cool way of helping them integrate and helping them meet those needs.”

They’re also thankful for volunteers willing to help with transportation, affordable housing, tutoring, and fellowship.

“A lot of them want to learn trades and different skills and things that would be applicable to the workforce in the US,” Tarry said. “Some want to further their education. These are resilient, hard-working, loving people, and it’s wonderful to get to work with them and get to know them better.”