Cuba's free education system benefits refugees

News Stories, 20 April 2006

© UNHCR

HAVANA, Cuba, April 20 (UNHCR) Marie Rose has not wasted her time. The 34-year-old slightly built Burundian has a scroll full of diplomas which she shows with a shy but proud smile. They certify she has acquired an array of skills during her time in Cuba. Marie Rose, Cuba's only Burundian refugee, has successfully completed courses in Spanish, Italian, computer studies, massage, negotiation and secretarial skills amongst others.

"Given the many options in Cuba where education is free for everybody, it would be a pity not to use this unique opportunity," says Marie Rose. Making the most of her time in Cuba, Marie Rose is already planning to take her next course at Havana University.

Cuba, which has survived decades of US sanctions as well as the collapse of the Soviet bloc which used to subsidise it heavily, has experienced a downturn in its economic fortunes. But despite this, Cuba has maintained its reputation for providing good free health care and education to which the some 700 refugees on the island also have access.

Marie Rose arrived in Cuba in April 2004. A Tutsi, she had fled Burundi where her sister and her sister's family had been killed by Hutu rebels. She arrived on the island alone, having left her husband and their children behind. The family did not have enough money to pay for them all to flee, and even though her husband had had a leg amputated as a result of severe beatings, they felt that Marie Rose was the one most in danger.

Refugees are not allowed to work in Cuba and many are dependent on a minimal allowance from UNHCR to help them survive. Those living in urban areas are lodged in private houses, where they have their own bedroom and access to a bathroom and kitchen. But, UNHCR's budget to pay for the upkeep of refugees like Marie Rose is continually being reduced because of funding constraints. Resourceful refugees, like Cuban nationals, try to find ways to benefit from subsidised products.

"Cuba is a country with very warm, helpful and generous people and although much time is spent looking for cheap food in the market, I am grateful," says Marie Rose, looking appreciatively around her flat full of lovingly cared-for plants.

Also having crossed the world, Ramin arrived in Cuba in 2000 at the age of 14, having fled with his family from the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

"I was almost illiterate when I first came to Cuba, but I got the chance to graduate from technical high school. I also learned to speak English and Spanish," said Ramin, now resettled in Finland.

All of the 697 refugees in Cuba are what is called "mandate refugees" which means UNHCR has given them refugee status as the government which has not signed the refugee Convention, has no mechanism to recognise refugees. Mandate refugee status gives refugees temporary asylum in Cuba, while UNHCR, which operates there with a minimal staff, works to find countries which will accept them on a permanent basis.

After five years in Cuba, Ramin and his family last year left for Finland. This has taken some getting used to.

"It's like you were living inside an oven, and all of a sudden you move to a fridge," says Ramin. But it was not just the shock of the climate. "Cuba and Finland are totally different. Here, people are very quiet; you can hardly tell if someone is around. They are also very shy and they don't make friends easily, but they are really nice and honest people."

By the time Ramin left Cuba, he was studying dentistry at Havana University. Now his ambitions have changed and he has applied to study international law.

"I hope I will pass the exam. I would really like to work in an organisation like UNHCR, so that I could help thousands of people in need."

Marie Rose is still in Cuba waiting to be resettled. "I want to reunite with my husband and our three children," she says, her smiling face concealing the horrors she has been through before managing to flee. Marie Rose who suffered threats and physical attacks is now looking forward to beginning again. "And we will have a better life. I hope I can use everything I learned in Cuba," she says in perfect Spanish.

By Marion Hoffmann and Mariana Echandi in Cuba and Mexico City