Francisco Bartelemy has been in Washington less than a year, but many places in the city hold special meaning for this Cuban refugee: McPherson Square, the 14th Street corridor, Dupont Circle and the sidewalks of Georgia Avenue. They are all places he has selpt when he had no home, no money and just the clothes on his back.
Bartelemy, 25, still has no permanent home. His dream is to forge a new life for himself in the United States as a cook. But here in the so-called land of dreams, Bartelemy's seem destined to remain an illusion -- he speaks only Spanish, cannot read or write, and says he is an epileptic and a homosexual.
Washington has only about 1,000 documented Cuban boat people -- the ones who fled their homeland or were unwillingly dumped in boats by Cuban President Fidel Castro for a n ew life in the United States. But like Bartelemy, many of them have numerous problems and are among the hardest persons for resettlement workers to place in homes or jobs. Officials working in Hispanic affairs say many more Cubans are pouring into the city each day than they can document.
Many have parted ways with their original U.S. sponsors, and their move to the District is already their second attempt to make a life in American society.
Most are black, unskilled workers with little education, who for a year or more knew no other freedom in the United States than that which existed behind the chain-link fences of the refugee camps in Fort McCoy, Wis., and Fort Chaffee, Ark. Many are old and sick. Some have turned to alcohol and violence, and themselves have been victims of violence here.
"A lot are from the slums [of Cuba]," said the Rev. Sean O'Malley, director fo the Centro Catolico social service agency. "If you took someone from the slums here and put them in another country where they can't speak the language, where they didn't want to be there and they were separated from their families, what kind of reaction do you think they would have?"
Despite the refugees' problems, Hispanic officials working for the D.C. government say the city has provided little help for the refugees. The federal government so far has allocated $38,000 to help Cubans and Haitians in the District. Of that amount, a $10,000 grant was aimed specifically at helping Cubans, but that money will soon run out.
"We're programming people to commit crimes by not giving them services," said Willie Vazquez, director of the city's Office of Latino Affairs. "There's been two murders and at least three assaults involving refugees" as either victims or suspects, he said.
The refugees are entitled to welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. But officials dealing with Hispanic affairs have complained that the city's Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees the welfare and food stamp programs for the refugees, has held up payments for the refugees by regularly changing the rules for applicants.
DHS "knows only one word in Spanish for the refugees -- manana [tomorrow]," said Mercedes Ponce, who until recently was heading the Cuban refugee program at the Wilson Center, a city social service agency for Hispanos.
James Buford, DHS' director, denied that DHS officials have made it difficult for Cubans to receive their benefits. He said Spanish-speaking DHS staff members can help refugees fill out forms so they can receive benefits.
The refugees and Hispanic activists have also complained about another organization, the Educational Organization for United Latin Americans (EOFULA), the brainchild of Carlos Rosario, director of the Office of Aging. EOFULA has a $300,000 federal grant to resettle 150 Cuban men who are more than 40 years of age while it tries to find them jobs and permanent homes.
Currently, 22 of those men are being housed in a filthy, rat-infested 23-bedroom house, permeated with the stench of urine, on Hyatt Place NW, not far from the Columbia Road corridor in the heart of the city's Hispanic community.
The men sleep on small cots, often two to a room. The only other furnishings in the house are a table and a few metal chairs. The sinks and toilet bowls look as if they haven't been cleaned for months.
"This situation is really getting out of hand," said one city official who deals with Hispanic affairs. "Right now they're all hanging around [on the streets], but what's going to happen in the winter when they can't hang around any more on Columbia Road?"
Frustrated by the length of time it is taking EOFULA to find them jobs and permanent apartments, the men sometimes come into the group's offices on Adams Mill Road NW to complain. They shout and flail their arms, often scaring the old Hispanic women who come to the same building for a free lunch under a separate program. Last week some of them smashed bottles and tossed furniture in one of the EOFULA homes.
"I have been here four months and have gotten nothing," said one refugee, Fautino Martinez Turilla, 54, as he sat in the barren room he shares with another refugee at the EOFULA refugee house at 1433 Irving St. NW. He looked up to where he had stashed away some crusts of bread on top of the transom above his bedroom door. A dead mouse was lying in the hall.
Martinez said he came to the United States seeking work so he could send back American medicine to his 22-year-old daughter and 79-year-old mother in Cuba, both of whom suffer from heart disease. But he said the city has yet to give him the $180 monthly welfare allotment and Medicare card to which he is entitled, nor has he found a job or permanent home.
EOFULA Director Pedro de Jesus says there is only so much the agency can do with older men who speak only Spanish. "There is prejudice against them even for dishwasher jobs," and many of them drink, he said.
Still, many refugees such as Bartelemy stay sober and want very much to work. Tall, slender, polite and well-spoken, Bartelemy says he has walked from downtown to Georgetown, from Capitol Hill to the 14th Street corridor searching for work, but has been turned down for numerous jobs since he cannot speak English.
He tried to sing up for English classes at the Gordon Adult Education Center in Georgetown, but he said the first thing school officials handed him was a long form with several questions in English. As a result, he did not enroll.
Another refugee, Alfredo Bobadillar, a 60-year-old carpenter and painter, won his first part-time job because of his personal integrity.
Bobadilla was combing the streets one day looking for cans to sell as scrap metal when he found a wallet with about $300 in it and an airline ticket. He returned the wallet with the cash and the ticket. In return, the grateful owner found him a temporary painting job at Lorenzo's Pizzeria on Columbia Road.
Bobadilla said he was in prison last year -- serving a four-year sentence for buying eight pounds of garlic through the Cuban black market -- when the Cuban government released him to join the boatlift to Key West, Fla. About 125,000 Cubans came to the United States in that "Freedom Flotilla."
But now that his painting job has ended, Bobadilla is worried. He lives in his own apartment and is afraid he will no longer be able to pay his rent and other expenses with only his $180 monthly welfare check.
"I came here to work, not to get $180 a month on welfare," he said. "If anyone needs a carpenter or a painter, I'm certainly available. . ."