Cuban families leave Rimbey for United States

Madelin Sardina and her family loved the snow.

Closed: Stan Cummings

Madelin Sardina and her family loved the snow.

“It was wonderful,” said the soft-spoken Cuban native, her friendly warm smile stretching up to her soft brown eyes.

“It gave me the same feeling of awe as seeing the ocean.”

“It was beautiful,” her husband Alex Suarez agreed. “We jumped in it,” he said, with a chuckle, the excitement in his voice similar to that of a young boy who had just discovered winter.

But, that was then.

It’s different now.

During the winter of 2013/14, the snow seemed endless and the temperature, more often than not, hovered around 30 below. It was a brutal winter, but for the young Cubans it was a time when they saw a bright new future for themselves in Rimbey.

It’s changed now.

Now means moving on and saying tearful goodbyes and exchanging fierce hugs meant to last a lifetime.

Only a few days ago, the family was forced to pack up whatever belongings they could fit into their vehicles and move on.

Sardina, Suarez, Odofvany Rodriguez, Unia Garcia, Yoel Sosa and Jacqueline Coz, all from Cuba were employed by Stan Cummings and Karen Conover from Best Western Rimstone Ridge Hotel. They came to Rimbey to work and to live as part of the temporary workers program.

They came in search of a better future, hoping to stay here forever.

“We hope to live here forever,” said Sardina in an earlier interview. “We love our country, but there are many things not allowed. Here we will live better.”

The families adjusted well and were grateful every single day for the freedom their new country allowed.

“It was an honour for them to come to work, to drive a vehicle, to have the freedom to get a prescription for their children,” said Conover.

However, what appeared to be a win/win situation for the Cuban families and their employers, turned into a heart wrenching tale of dashed hopes, tears and, finally, the closure of one of Rimbey’s fine eateries.

Henry’s, the restaurant located at the Best Western, has closed its doors as its beloved chefs have fled the country, hoping to find a safe haven across the borders where they can finally live in peace.

The families are now in the United States.

They were worried, Conover explained, that talks between the Cuban government and United States could result in changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act.

The impending changes, which could see the immigration laws tightening, caused the Cuban families to act quickly.

“We supported them,” said Conover. “Their biggest fear was they would have to go back to Cuba.”

But Conover, Cummings and their general manager Valerie St-Jean breathed collective sighs of relief when they received a phone call, Monday confirming that the families had made it across the border.

In an email to Conover, Sardina described the ordeal of crossing the border.

“Five minutes before entering the borders we stopped and planned our replies,” she said. Once we entered, the officer asked for the passports and as we planned before any other question Alex said: we are Cuban and want to adjust to the Cuban Adjustment Law in America. (He said that perfectly since he was reciting that all the way there.)”

Brushing tears from her eyes, Conover continued to read the email.

“We were individually asked many questions. We all said the truth as Stan advised and thing were easier,” she read.

The families were detained at the border for more than five hours, but finally were given permission to cross.

“They laughed with us, gave us advices in USA, played with the kids and we ended up friends. They loved Cuban sandwiches, but we never gave them the recipe. All our papers were done legally, our passports were stamped and we were given an ID card until our residency comes in in about one year.” Sardina said.

While Conover is relieved the families have made it across the US border safely, she is angry with the Canadian government which she blames for forcing them to leave.

A change in the temporary foreign workers program which include capping the number of foreign workers at 10 per cent (of the total workers employed) by 2016, has effectively tied our hands, she said.

“The government is forcing them to flee to the United States where they are welcomed with open arms,” she added.

Struggling to hold back the tears, Conover told the story of how the Cuban families embraced Rimbey, its people, and its way of life. She explained how the new employees wound their way into the hearts of their employers and the hearts of many people in Rimbey.

The families celebrated Christmas together and the Cuban families brought new joy and meaning to the holiday.

“They appreciated everything,” Cummings said. “And they were very well respected in the community.”

“They made us appreciate everything we take for granted a lot more,” added St. Jean. “It’s like losing members of our family.”

All three agreed the Cubans were dedicated, hard working employees willing to work long hours.

“I am very angry the government can dictate to me the hours I can run my restaurant,’ said Karen. ”Local people are not available for the shifts we need, the hours we need.”

Both Conover and Cummings said contacting government officials about the temporary workers program got them nowhere.

“As far as a response from the federal government, the doors were shut,” said Cummings.

MP Blaine Calkins did not return phone calls to the Review by press time regarding the temporary foreign workers program.

But even though the doors have closed on Henry’s Restaurant, residents can rest assured that the Cuban families will never forget the town, the kindnesses they were shown and the happy times they enjoyed here.

“Please once again tell everybody we are already missing all and it is gonna be hard because you are all forever in our hearts. Rimbey from now on will be our hometown as well as Cuba,” said Jacqueline Coz in an email on behalf of her and her husband.

“We agreed that for sure we will have a nice life and good opportunities here, but never such excellent employers and warm friends. We already miss our house in Rimbey and would like to extend a big Cuban hug and thanks to all of you for your support and love. All people of Rimbey will be in our heart forever,” said Suarez on behalf of herself and her husband.

“We really are still very sad, but we really are in love with every people we meet in Rimbey. I think this could maybe help others because sometimes we must sacrifice some soldiers to win a battle,” said Unia Garcia in her email.

Anyone concerned about the temporary workers program is asked to notify MP Blaine Calkins at blaine.calkins@parl.gc.ca or telephone at 403-783-5530 or Jason Kenney, PC, MP at Jason.kenney@parl.gc.ca or telephone at 403-225-3480.