By Jimmy Dunn
Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wednesday, November 25, 2009
An idea born of frustration three years earlier had come to fruition. At midnight on March 31, 2005, Yoanki Hernandez Leyva embarked on a life-changing odyssey that began inCuba and brought him to McCandless, Pa. The clandestine meetings with his six friends were over. The boat, built without detection, was completed and ready to launch.
“Life was so hard in our town ofCamaguey. So much poverty, no chance for growth,” recalled Mr. Leyva, who was a determined and restless 24-year-old Cuban at the time he embarked on his dangerous adventure.
“Our thoughts got stronger as we planned. We all dreamed of going to America. We knew it would be risky. But for myself, I was going to die trying.”
Attempting to buy a boat at the docks was dangerous. “If the secret police would have found out what we were asking about, we would have gone to jail. And the people who turned us in would have gotten a reward.”
Mr. Leyva, who had spent three years in the Cuban navy, was chosen to lead the expedition. Back in the hills, two miles off the beaten path, the seven men took three months to build the 28-foot boat, powered by a two-cylinder Russian-made motor. When departure time came, an ox pulled the craft to the waters’ edge.
They didn’t sail towardFlorida, about 90 miles away, because they were worried that the U.S. Coast Guard might intercept them and turn them back. Instead, they headed toward theCayman Islands, where they were denied entrance. Disappointed but not discouraged, they set out forHonduras.
This leg of the journey brought them close to disaster. Not only did the boat’s motor quit, a frightening, sudden storm arose that almost terminated their trip. To compound a perilous situation, one of the men fell overboard. Without hesitation, Mr. Leyva, a strong swimmer, jumped in to rescue him.
Eventually, the storm quieted, and they were faced with a new reality. They were adrift in the Caribbean with no power! Attempts to repair the motor became dangerous when sharks appeared. Food and water dwindled quickly. Fishing, once a pastime, became a source of survival.
After 11 days of aimless floating, a Romanian container ship manned by a crew from thePhilippinesspotted them. Following old maritime tradition, they assisted the stranded defectors with food, fuel and water.
Mr. Leyva attributes their miraculous rescue “to the hand of God.” Energized by their good fortune, they set a new course forHonduras. The trek of 700 nautical miles and 18 days ended when they landed in that country’sMosquitaProvince, where the native Indians helped them.
In recalling his watery ordeal, Mr. Leyva said, soberly, “The ocean is not for weak people.”
The group traveled fromHondurasthrough Guatamala toMexicoby any means available. A taste of freedom triggered a split. “Four guys had money. They went their way,” Mr. Leyva explained. The three who remained, without money and proper identification, landed in aMexicanImmigrationDetentionCenterfor 30 days. Overcrowding at that facility prompted their release. The three went their separate ways.
Eventually, Mr. Leyva reached San Benito, Texas, where he found shelter at La Posada Providencia, a place where refugees seeking political asylum can stay for free. It has been operated by the Sisters of Divine Providence for 20 years.
Mr. Leyva was grateful but still uncertain: Had he realized his dream of freedom?
Sister Zita Telkamp helped him answer that question. The director of the shelter sensed potential in the newest member of their mostly transitional community. She began tutoring the young man, who was hungry to learn, and their student-teacher relationship quickly became a friendship.
“I listened to his story of poverty from childhood on and came to admire his courage and talent, especially after he related his dangerous and determined break to freedom,” Sister Zita said. She became his mentor.
“I recognized that he was gifted intellectually,” said Sister Zita, who recently celebrated her 60th year as a member of the Sisters of Divine Providence. With prayer, persuasion, diplomatic immunity and financial assistance from Sister Zita’s three brothers, Mr. Leyva became a student at La Roche College in 2006. His transition and adjustment to college life was similar to that of the other 138 international students attending the small campus in McCandless: It was a bit difficult.
Linda Jordan Platt, an English professor at La Roche, was one of Mr. Leyva’s first teachers there. She was pleased with his progress in the English as a Second Language class and with his effort in her College English Writing class. “He always wore a shirt and tie to class, compared with the casual attire of some of his classmates. His demeanor in class, coupled with his excellent leadership qualities, impressed me,” Dr. Platt said.
Even more impressive was Mr. Leyva’s gesture of kindness when Dr. Platt’s mother died, she said. “Yoanki borrowed a car and drove 60 miles north over an unfamiliar route to Parker, ArmstrongCounty, to extend his condolences to my family. I’ll always remember that,” she said.
Mr. Leyva recognizes that “the USA has given me a second chance,” he said. To him, “education is very important.”
It’s difficult for him to communicate with his mother and four sisters inCubabecause Internet service is very limited and phone service is expensive there. But he’s happy to report that his family has not suffered because of his defection.
Currently, the 28-year-old junior is pursuing a degree in facilities management. “I want to be a useful person someday by helping people, but I know good things take time,” he said.
“I have an eternal debt of gratitude to Sister Zita for getting me started,” he said.
LaRocheCollege’s mission statement declares that the Catholic institution “fosters global citizenship and creates a community of scholars from the region, the nation and around the world.” Mr. Leyva said he wants to be a part of that credo.
Freelance writer Jimmy Dunn can be reached in care of email@example.com.