Visiting Cubans Defect

Visiting Cubans defect; Two from youth exchange disappear after e-mails, phone calls to Toronto

Owen Sound Sun Times
November 20, 2007

Two Cubans staying in the Meaford-Thornbury area as part of a Canada World Youth exchange have gone missing, leaving a letter saying they plan to seek asylum in Canada.

The disappearance has thrown into confusion the exchange group of now eight Cubans and nine Canadians, said Robert Burcher, who has played host to some group members at his home near Clarksburg.

Both Raidel Ramierz and Jorge Payan were staying with families in Meaford. Like the other Cuban visitors, they are teachers in training who have been in the area for almost three months and were to head home to Cuba next Monday, with the Canadian participants.

“This is all the buzz in Thornbury today,” Burcher said.

Canada World Youth confirmed Tuesday that two Cuban members of the exchange group are missing. Toronto-based program manager Diane Der said others in the group are “devastated” by the disappearance, but said she had few details.

“The others are just absolutely furious” because they believe this reflects badly on their country and on the program, Burcher said.

He described the exchange participants in their early 20s as Cuba's “brightest of the bright,” all “solid citizens.”

Their disappearance Monday night – after a flurry of e-mails and phone calls to someone in Toronto – was so well organized it must have been planned for some time, Burcher added.

The two left a long note telling the other Cubans they still love their country and detailing their decision to remain in Canada.

Canada World Youth has organized international exchanges with countries around the world for 36 years, averaging 37 programs each year. It is “rare” for asylum seekers to run off during the exchanges, but it has happened before, Der said late Tuesday afternoon.

CWY routinely seeks to avoid such incidents through workshops, warning participants about the difficulties they will face trying to remain in Canada as aliens.

“Living in a country without status is no easy thing,” she said. “They certainly won't have the same access and privileges they have as part of the exchange.”

The disappearance has been reported to police and the program participants are trying to complete the project despite the disruption.

“This is very difficult for everyone,” Der said. “It has taken us very much by surprise.”

The two Cubans left without their passports, which are held during their stay by CWY officials partly to avoid such incidents. But they have not broken any immigration laws, Der said, because their visas remain valid until the scheduled departure time early next week.

The disappearance is not expected to have any impact on plans for the nine Canadians to travel to Cuba next week to complete the other side of the exchange over the next three months, Der said.