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Escape from oppression: Hastings woman recalls flight from Cuba
Will Vraspir, Hastings Tribune
HASTINGS (AP) — Anneris “Nery” Shafer, 37, didn’t know what would happen when she floated into the Atlantic Ocean on a tractor tire inner tube in 1994.
Nicknamed “Nery” by her friends, Shafer just knew that she wanted to get away from Cuba and its communist government.
When President Fidel Castro reversed a long-standing policy of arresting anyone who tried to leave the island by sea in August 1994, Shafer was one of tens of thousands who tried to reach Florida. She and a friend brought water, condensed milk and a bottle of honey on an inner tube and paddled their way toward Florida.
Despite her college education and job as a physical education teacher, Shafer said, she lived in squalor in her hometown of Havana.
“If you don’t live it, you don’t know,” she said. “You don’t know what people there suffer. It’s not just poverty. You suffer an oppression.”
So Shafer risked her life to float to America.
She and her friend didn’t have a map, so they were forced to use the sun and moon to gauge direction. Their plan was to paddle north and pray.
After more than two days at sea, Shafer said, she could see the building lights off the coast of Florida. But before she and her friend could reach the shore, they were apprehended by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Shafer was taken to Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military base on Cuba.
Her situation hadn’t improved.
At the base, she and the other refugees were kept in camps and not allowed to leave.
“For me to leave home, and go basically to jail, was hard,” she said. “My hope was, ‘I’m going to the United States.’ I told myself, ‘I can go through this. I can suffer for a little bit.’
“We were going to a better place,” Shafer said.
After about four months, the U.S. government started to process the refugees. They started with older folks, then moved to pregnant women and families with children. Then they processed couples, followed by single men and women, which included Shafer.
When her time came around, a lottery system was used to determine the order people in her group would leave, starting with the lowest numbers.
Shafer’s number was 1,039.
“It wasn’t a lucky number,” she said with a chuckle. “I came in on the last flight that flew to the United States.”
Shafer stayed in Florida for a few days until a place for her was found in Hastings. She flew into the Grand Island airport in January 1996, where Catholic Social Services employees picked her up to help get her settled into her new life.
Shafer had no idea where Nebraska was. She knew about Florida because of its proximity to her home country. She had heard of other states like California, Texas and New York, but not Nebraska.
After a year, she had the option of moving to a different location if she didn’t want to stay in Nebraska. She decided that she enjoyed the state and thought it would be a good place to raise a family. She also could apply to become a resident of the United States after her first year, which she did.
She worked a variety of cleaning jobs when she first came to Hastings. She didn’t have a car to drive to work, so she was forced to walk despite the cold.
Someone later gave her a bicycle, which she used until she could save enough money to buy a car. Four and a half years after becoming a resident, Shafer was able to apply for her citizenship. She said it was a long and grueling process, but it was worth it.
“It’s a grateful moment when they shake your hand and say, ‘You’re a citizen of this country,’” she said.
Despite the struggle, Shafer is now happy with her life in America.
She is married to Josh Shafer and has two children. She works as a medical interpreter, as a recruiter for the migrant worker program at Head Start and leads a Zumba dance/fitness class at the YMCA.
For others going through the process to become a citizen of the United States, she offered some advice:
“Be patient. I know sometimes it’s hard.”