HELENA – Cuban refugees Maie Lee Jones and Adonis Antolin Zamora Garzon and their infant daughter Kelly arrived at the Canadian/U.S border crossing in Eureka with just the clothes they were wearing and not much else.
They came here seeking political asylum and a new life.
Since the day they arrived, June 13, 2014, they’ve been met with kindness and generosity in Montana, particularly in Helena, say Maie and Adonis.
And whenever they can, they’ve been giving back – as a way of saying thank you.
When they left Cuba, they knew they may never be able to return to see their families.
But President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba has renewed hope that someday soon that might change.
Sitting in their sunny and welcoming apartment on a lovely spring day, they point out all the pieces of furniture that Helena friends have donated to them, with the rest of the pieces purchased at garage sales and the Good Samaritan store.
Even their cellphones and vehicles are gifts.
It is “very difficult,” Maie said of their life in Cuba. Although housing, health care and education are free, incomes are unbelievably low. “The economical situation in Cuba is very hard. Engineers, doctors, other professionals – we earn like $25, $20, $30 per month. ... It’s the cost of a pair of shoes.”
“I never thought of having a kid in Cuba because on $30 we can’t support even ourselves, ” she recalled saying to Adonis.
“We are very well educated,” she said. “He speaks four languages. I speak four languages. ... We want a better future. And for that we come here.”
They are raising their two young daughters, Emily, who is almost 2, and Kelly, 3, to be bilingual.
“In Cuba, it’s free to study,” said Adonis. “She and I studied all the time.”
Before arriving here, Maie worked as a business development coordinator for a hotel, she said, and Adonis worked in hotel management.
They worked a lot of other jobs as well – as tour guides, chefs and teachers.
Both are anxious to launch professional careers here, but have been slowly working through all the paperwork to get their legal documents.
Adonis works for Montana Preservation Alliance at a variety of jobs to build his computer skills and to learn about an American workplace.
He plans to begin teaching Spanish part time at Carroll College this fall.
Maie has been honing her job skills in classes at Helena College.
In a recent interview they marveled at their amazing good luck that dropped them in Helena.
“We arrived at the border in Eureka” recounted Maie of how it all started. And here’s where that Montana “small town” magical network begins to happen.
The border people didn’t know what to do with them, she said, and called local social activist Rita Collins, who lives in Eureka.
“It’s a small town,” said Collins in a phone interview, and everybody knows everybody. “I work for a small nonprofit – Sunburst Community Service Foundation.
“I had never had it happen before,” she said. “And the border people had never had it happen before.”
“But Adonis and Maie knew there was a process where the government would help them,” Collins said.
After they had processed Maie and Adonis through, the border officials said they had no more responsibility, said Collins.
So she kicked into high gear, rounding up money and resources to find them a room and food.
Collins also got in touch with the Refugee Center Online.
Soon, Adonis and Maie, who were planning to go to Florida, heard about Helena and decided to give it a try.
A man in Eureka offered them a ride to Helena, the Montana Highway Patrol provided a child car seat for Kelly and they were on their way.
When they arrived, a combination of government agencies, nonprofits and individuals stepped up to help.
There was, admittedly, some culture shock.
In Cuba, a lot of everyday life and hubbub of activity is in the street.
“It was the day of the soccer war with Brazil,” recalled Maie of that June Saturday.
Instead of seeing excited, jubilant people out in the downtown, “nobody was on the street.”
Bonnie Adee and husband Frank Crowley were among the first people to meet Adonis and Maie because their daughter-in-law is director of the Refugee Center Online. She was rounding up food for them.
Adee and Crowley, who had recently visited Cuba, brought them a traditional Cuban dinner, “Ropa Vieja.”
Crowley recalls Adonis’ astonishment at seeing the familiar food.
“We became their mentor family,” Crowley said, and he admits his attorney background has certainly been needed to wade through all the governmental paperwork.
One way Adonis and Maie have thanked them was holding a tutorial about Cuba at the Crowley home for a group of Montanans planning to travel there.
Adonis and Maie also spoke about Cuba at Great Conversations, the annual fundraiser for Helena Education Foundation.
They’ve also volunteered for community events.
Maie volunteered as a model for two Good Sam fashion show fundraisers.
And Adonis joined the cast of Queen City Ballet’s “Nutcracker.”
“They’re delightful,” said Crowley. “They’re very excited about what’s happening – the thawing in relations between the two countries.”
Once they have their U.S. permanent resident paperwork, they’d like to visit their families in Cuba. Maie’s dad died in January 2015, but she was unable to return for his funeral. And Adonis would like to see his mother.
Adonis and Maie also hosted a refugee party at the Crowley home and Crowley was amazed at who showed up.
“There were probably 30 people there from China, Japan, Argentina, Cuba,” he said. “I learned a lot – through them – about the refugee community.”
“They’ve just always wanted to be part of the community,” he said, adding that they go to events like Alive at Five and the Helena Farmers Market.
“They’re wonderful people,” he said. “Our lives have been blessed by meeting them.”
They’re also wonderful dancers, said Chere Jiusto, executive director of Montana Preservation Alliance, which offered Adonis a training job.
“It’s been really rewarding to us,” she said, to help him get a path to a job.
“They’re lovely people,” she said. “They’re gentle. They’re hardworking.”
Through all the steps and waiting and obstacles, “They were so patient. I never saw such unflagging optimism that things would work out in the end.”
“They say they want to work and they want to give back,” she said. “They’ve done a lot of nice things in the community.”
Collins, the first Montanan to help Adonis and Maie at the border, is delighted at how they're doing in Helena.
“They’ve done so well,” she said. “They’re both talented people with a vision of what they want for their children.
“I’m sure whatever community they live in, they will be an asset.”