2 Months After Flight, No Asylum, No Regret
TAMPA - When Yendry Diaz slipped out of the Cuban soccer team's hotel on Cypress Street two months ago, he had high hopes for his new life in the United States - and dreams of a contract with a pro soccer team. Last week, he found himself mired in red tape and applying for food stamps. He and fellow defector Eder Roldan, awaiting a political asylum application interview, have no work permits. So Diaz sleeps in late at the home of his girlfriend's uncle, where he lives. He shoots e-mails to friends in Cuba.He text-messages his mom to call him - every single day. He plays video soccer and baseball games at a friend's house a couple of blocks away. He practices three times a week with the Dynamo New Tampa amateur soccer team. He goes bowling every weekend. And, he waits for the rest of his new life to begin. With no regret. "I feel good," Diaz said. "I feel fine here, because I can do whatever I want. Here, you can go out in the street and own your own car." Back in Cuba, you need the government's permission to own a car. Here in Tampa, you just need the money to buy one. And a license to drive it. Those are things he can't have yet - until his immigration paperwork comes through. Meanwhile, the $2,100 Diaz brought from Cuba - "I came prepared" - is dwindling fast. So life in the United States is a little dull these days for a 21-year-old with boundless energy. "I'm crazy to start playing soccer. I get really bored here doing nothing all day," Diaz said as he surveyed the small, well-kept living room of the Town 'N Country home he shares with Waldo and Adela Yanes, uncle and aunt to the 20-year-old Cuban-American who swept him off his feet two months ago outside his team hotel. He and Odelmis Delgado of Carrollwood have been an item ever since. Finding A Family In Florida He asked her for her phone number. Then the day after five other members of Cuba's under-23 men's soccer team disappeared from the team hotel, Delgado picked up Diaz and Roldan, who declined to be interviewed for this article, in her car outside the hotel March 12 and helped make them the sixth and seventh defectors for the week. (An assistant coach, Dagoberto Lara, became No. 8.) "She's a good girl," Díaz said of Delgado. "She works in a pharmacy." As for her aunt and uncle, who took him in rent-free, he said: "It's as if they are my parents." He misses his real parents, Julio Diaz and Dinora Perez, and the 6-year-old sister, Maryelena, he left behind. He commemorates his sister with the initials "YQM" tattooed on his left wrist - short for "Yendry quiere a Maryelena." Yendry Loves Maryelena. He's had the tattoo since she was a year old. "She says she misses me a lot, that she loves me a lot," Díaz said. From the look on his face, you know the feeling is mutual. He said his family isn't hurting, financially speaking, in their hometown of Matanzas. His father drives a tourist bus in the beach resort town of Varadero. His mother is a cook there, too. With access to hard currency from tourists, they make out all right. Still: "I want to bring them here," Díaz said. The Cuban government, and particularly the soccer team, gave some of the other defectors' families a rough time, according to reports in the Miami Herald. A government official showed up at one of their homes, demanding they return the ex-player's medals, trophies and phone. The family gave up the phone. They persuaded the official to let them keep the rest. Diaz's family hasn't had much trouble. The only exception, he said, is the government won't let his family have the flat-screen TVs he ordered while on a soccer-team trip to Guyana. After his defection, the shipment finally arrived in Cuba. "The Cuban Soccer Federation doesn't want to give them the TVs," he said. Waiting For A Resolution Here in Town 'N Country, he allowed himself a couple of electronic splurges with his savings: a laptop and a $45-a-month cell phone. The phone rings every few minutes. Sometimes, there's talk on the other end about a tryout with a United Soccer League team. In early April, the Puerto Rico Islanders were training in Central Florida, so Diaz and Roldan joined them. "We were actually in Orlando and Tampa for part of our preseason, and so they came in for a couple of days to train with us," said Colin Clarke, the Islanders' coach. "They both did very well. ... If they get their work permits, we'd certainly invite them back. Without work permits, nothing can be taken further." It was the same story from the Miami FC, another professional club in the USL. "We decided to wait until they had their situation - their immigration status in this country - cleared before offering them anything," team spokesman Marcos Ommati said. Not long after leaving the Cuban team midway through its Olympic-qualifying tournament in Tampa, Diaz and Roldan applied for asylum. "They said it would take one or two months," Diaz said. "We had our appointment, but then we had to reschedule it. I was ready, but Eder wasn't prepared for the interview." Tampa immigration lawyer Terry Christian, a former U.S. immigration judge and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's Central Florida chapter, said once the athletes interview with an asylum officer, a decision can be made on the spot - or passed on for an immigration judge to decide. "As soon as they get their applications processed, they can file for work authorization," said Christian, who is not handling the Cuban athletes' case. A Miami lawyer is. Christian's prediction? "They're going to be granted asylum. It's a done deal," Christian said. "It's all going to happen. All in good time." They're waiting to hear back for a new interview date. More than two months have passed since Diaz's life-altering decision to stay here. Much of his savings has been spent. "I went to Children and Families to fill out a petition for assistance - food stamps," said Diaz, who got a ride to the office from his Tampa-based agent, Abel Castillo. "They told me I needed a letter that showed that immigration approved the political asylum application." He didn't have that letter. Hours later, he left, empty-handed. The next day began again just like any other. He slept late, until 10 a.m. He got up and started sending e-mails to his friends in Cuba. They e-mail back: "They ask me when am I going to start playing soccer again," Diaz said. He sent text messages to his mother, asking her to call his cell phone. Each day, they talk, just for a minute or two, to keep the costs down. He said he always tells her the same thing: "I'm fine," Diaz said. "Don't worry."
Reporter Karen Branch-Brioso can be reached at (813) 259-7815 or [email protected] .com.