For a moment, she fought to control her emotions, but it was no use. Slumping back in the Army cot, the 13-year-old Cuban refugee let the tears flow.
Back home in Havana, her mother might have thrown her arms around the girl and told her to ignore the taunts of the other children. But there was no such comfort for Marisol Rodriguez. A week ago, she had fled Cuba at her mother's insistence, leaving her parents and a brother behind.
Now, in a teeming refugee camp more than a thousand miles from home, Marisol was alone. She had no friends, save for those she had met in camp, and her only connection in this new world was a grandmother, she said, who lived somewhere in a place called New Jersey.
There are 150 children without parents or relatives here at Fort Indiantown Gap, officials say, and another 400 or so at the other U.S. refugee processing centers around the country.
Many of them were separated from their fleeing parents in the crush of some 90,000 refugees boarding boats at the Cuban port of Mariel or at the Florida harbor where they landed. Others apparently left Cuba without even telling their parents, and a few, officials here suspect, were released from mental hospitals in Cuba by Castro's government and literally forced out of the country.
For the relief workers here who have been trying, frantically at times, to identify the refugees in the camp, those unaccompanied children are both the most pressing problems a reaffirmation of what America represents.
"The fact that many of these children were sent here by their parents, who could not get out themselves, moves me to tears," said Robert G. Wright, a senior official with the U.S. Catholic Conference. "These children are the most precious things in the world to their parents, and the parents have ultimate trust in us that we will take care of them. They send them over here knowing it may be years, if ever, before they see them again."
The unaccompanied children at the refugee center here are living as orphans in the midst of adults, the overwhelming majority of whom are men in their 20s and 30s.
"That obviously presents some potential for problems," said Bette Matus, a Catholic Conference official responsible for the 150 unaccompanied children in this center. "We haven't had any reports of assaults or abuse, but we've got nearly 19,000 refugees here, and in any city that size you can expect trouble sometimes."
Matus and others here are sifting through computer printouts for the names of refugees with birthdates after 1962. When they find a name, they begin the laborious task of trying to track down the child within the camp.
Though they may know the child's building number -- refugees are living in the training barracks of a Pennsylvania National Guard camp -- rarely do they find the child they're looking for on the first try. Like children everywhere, the young refugees enjoy stroling around the grounds, meeting others their own age, going to movies (all in English so far) provided by the camp, or just resting in the sun.
Three days ago, Matus led one expedition into the camp, which is the same one used by Indochinese refugees five years ago. She stopped at a building where one member of her bilingual staff broadcast over a loudspeaker an appeal for certain children they believed to be unaccompanied to report for special processing.
A few turned up. One older man also turned up, his name having been called because his birthday was listed incorrectly on the computer printout.
As Matus watched the half dozen children board the huge Trailways bus that would carry them to the camp headquarters for questioning, her eyes caught another child also unaccompanied, whose name was not on the list of those to be interviewed at that time.
"Look," she said, shaking her head, "She must be 14 or 15. She's got on lipstick and is smoking cigarettes like crazy. She's already getting hardened. It's not good for the kids to stay in here too long."
Matus' hope is that, by giving the unaccompanied children a head start in processing, they can be shipped out more quickly to relatives or to group homes, avoiding any psychological damage. Without special treatment, she said, the children would linger here for three weeks.
But the mere fact that the children are unaccompanied presents a dilemna for relief workers, according to Wright.
If we find they have no relatives here, we have to place them in foster homes or group homes," he said. "It's extremely difficult to place a child in some states now. Many states are reluctant to take on the expense and there are some who have expressed a lack of willingness to have refugees at all."
If a child says he or she has, for example, a relative in Florida, Wright said, it woiuld be best to place that child in a foster home there. Then, it is easier to trace a relative because the child is nearby to answer questions.
But because of federal laws dealing with the interstate transfer of minors, the legality of shifting a child from Pennsylvania to Florida without the consent of a parent or guardian is questionable.
"If someone wanted to throw a wrench into the whole thing," said one senior federal official here, "All they would have to do is file a court challenge, and then these kids might never get out of here."
The children at Indiantown Gap are between 13 and 17, with the overwhelming majority being 16 years old. A few names appeared on the initial computer printouts listing birthdates as recently as this year, but subsequent checks have shown them to be misprints.
Like many of the refugees here, the children wear essentially everything they own. Some have no shoes or shirts, though they will be issued clothing as soon as the massive logistics of providing for the community of 19,000 that has spring up here within a matter of days are conquered.
As they sit waiting to be interviewed, some children chat, others stare off with blank faces, smoking cigarettes donated to the refugee camp by American tobacco manufacturers.
Many of these children were in the Peruvian Embassy compound in Havana with their parents, becoming separated later. But there were some who went inside the compound alone, joining about 10,000 other persons. One 16-year-old girl said she ran to the embassy without telling her parents and hasn't seen them since.
Two young Americans, Robin Hiesey, 18, who spent time as an exchange student in Colombia, and Louis Rosello, 18, a Puerto Rican, question each minor and fill out forms. Time after time, they check the boxes deontoing that the child left parents behind or became separated from parents at Mariel.
At the bottom of the sheet, in a space marked "comments," they add details.
"Doesn't have address of aunt [in New Jersey] where father is staying," reads one.
"Has called aunt. Parents are in Cuba. Wishes to be placed with aunt," reads another.
One 16-year-old boy said he had a cousin in the United States, but, as the comment noted, "doesn't know city where cousin lives. Says he doesn't know cousin. May not recognize him. He left Cuba before he was born. Would prefer not to bother cousin. Wants [the USCC] to find him as sponsor."
"I don't know how we're going to handle that," said Heisey, a shophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. "That'll be difficult."
For 13-year-old Marisol, the reasons for coming to the United States alone are simple.
"My father and my brother tried to escape to the United States in a boat but they were caught," she said. "Now they're in prison [in Cuba]. My mother and I were in the Peruvian Embassy, but my mother decided to stay because she could not leave my brother behind in prison. She signed permission for me to come."
Her days in the camp are filled with routine. At 6 in the morning, she awakens and has breakfast, then goes back to bed and sleeps until noon. She lives in a barracks filled with families. In the afternoon, she takes a bath and goes to American movies, even though she knows no English.
In between, she walks around the camp, killing time, convinced she will be reunited with her grandmother. Like everyone, she has one question she asks all American she meets.
"When will I be able to leave?"
"If we're lucky, we might be able to get some of these kids out of here by the end of this weekend," said Matus. "But for some, like those we don't know where their relatives are, it could take longer."