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LISTEN: Cuban Teen Immigrants Balance School, Life And Politics

Damian (left) and Dariel Fuentes
Damian (left) and Dariel Fuentes

When Dariel Fuentes watched the television footage of protesters beaten and bloodied at a Donald Trump rally in Chicago earlier this month, it reminded him of the oppression he witnessed as a boy growing up in Cuba.

During a week when President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in more than 80 years, after two years of work to reset relations with the island nation, Dariel was more focused on the race for who will succeed Obama.

The 17-year-old said it's puzzling when American protesters are punished by the police and fellow citizens. The ability to speak out against politicians is something that's supposed to set America apart from other countries, Dariel said.

"I start to ask myself, 'If as Americans you are free to talk how you want, why are they doing that,'" he said.

Dariel and his twin brother, Damian, immigrated from Cuba to Louisville late last year with their mother. It was a troublesome trip, they said. They spent nearly two years in the British Islands awaiting approval for refugee status to come to the United States.

"It was a long process," Damian said.

But worth it, he added.

The boys are students at Jefferson County Public Schools' ESL Newcomer Academy, housed in the Academy at Shawnee. Newcomer Academy is the first stop in the Jefferson County school system for hundreds of refugee students fleeing oppression, war or poverty.

Once students spend a few years at the academy, they're expected to have learned skills needed to successfully integrate into other schools within the district.

This week, Newcomer hosted a "Global Homecoming" to highlight the different cultures filling the school every day. Cuba, Syria and Malaysia are just a few of the countries represented there.

On Wednesday, Damian and Dariel helped kick off the program with a Cuban dance routine. They laughed and smiled and shook their hips with a dozen other students, while hundreds more cheered from the bleachers.

The brothers like school. They like their teachers and say they're pretty comfortable in class and in the halls. They've been enrolled for a few months and have made friends and found interests that weren't available to them in Cuba.

Damian wants to join a swim team. Dariel likes listening to pop music like Katy Perry, Chris Brown and Taylor Swift.

And unlike in Cuba, they said here they have unfettered access to the Internet, television and information that can help them understand the world like never before.

Dariel said in Cuba, he felt less than human.

"They treat you like you are an animal," he said.

Still, the boys said it was tough to leave behind family members.

"I left my grandmother," Damian said.

Damian wants to be a dentist. Dariel wants to be an aerospace engineer. They both believe the education they're getting here -- which they'd struggle to find in Cuba, they said -- is key to their success.

"We came here, to the United States, looking for freedom," Damian said. "Go to university, study, work hard."

The boys worry, though, when they hear rhetoric from presidential candidates blasting immigration. While Trump's rallies have drawn attention for their violence, the other Republican candidates for president have taken tough anti-immigration stances as well.

Dariel said he's afraid that if some of the policies being talked about during presidential debates and campaigns are enacted, he and his brother will be deported back to Cuba.

Everybody should have the opportunity to "earn a life," he said.

Gwen Snow, the principal of Newcomer Academy, said school staff and faculty address these issues head on.

"We really try to make sure they understand to be proud of who they are," she said.

Snow said school officials prepare students with skills to respond positively when they encounter stereotyping or racism in public.

“Just prepping kids to understand that people don’t always understand everything,” she said. “But a lot of them are leaving maybe even scarier things.”

School officials focus on ensuring classrooms have a diverse mix of students. Putting students with different backgrounds and skill sets together helps those who are struggling catch up. But it also serves a bigger purpose, Snow said.

"It also helps them become globalized citizens," she said. "Which is a huge advantage for the community."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.