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Off the boat one day, on their own the next

Unlike in Miami, support services for refugees are slim here.

Published December 20, 2006


TAMPA - Yuniel Esteves walked through WestShore Plaza in awe Monday night, hunting for clothes with an old high school classmate.

"It looks like a movie," he told his friend Leodan Nodarse in Spanish.

It was the 24-year-old's first stop after his release from the U.S. Border Patrol office after he and 25 other Cuban refugees landed on Longboat Key that morning.

While authorities marveled that refugees had turned up so far north, the refugees marveled at the shelves of American stores. Rafael Salgado Vaez, 48, was struck by the size of Wal-Mart, his relative Andres Sanchez said.

The Cubans, who each paid a smuggler $2,000, intended to come ashore in Miami. Instead, after a stormy three-day voyage, they landed more than 200 miles north in Longboat Key on Monday.

Vaez's relatives and Esteves' dad picked them up late that night. Like most of Monday's refugees, they will start their new lives in Miami.

Even though the refugees didn't stay in Tampa, local U.S. Border Patrol Agent Steve McDonald says the agency needs to better prepare for any future Cuban arrivals.

Monday, agents offered telephones to the refugees to find rides. Then they opened the doors, and people who have never experienced life outside Cuba were on their own.

The Hillsborough County Health Department has a refugee program that gives immunizations and scans for infectious diseases, but the process from boat to clinic isn't as fluid as Miami's.

In Miami, where such landings occur more frequently, officials bus refugees to a health clinic. After screenings, partner service organizations bus them to their own facilities for orientation, then help them get jobs and seek political asylum.

In Tampa, refugees were told to seek health screenings on their own and check in within 90 days.

McDonald says partnerships are needed among Border Patrol, health officials and nonprofits in Tampa.

"It is definitely something we need to look into," he said.



[Last modified December 20, 2006, 05:35:02]

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