The Miami Herald

Miami's Freedom Tower was first stop for many Cuban exiles

In 1965, Luz Maria Docampo bundled her hopes, fears and family onto a boat that left Cuba for Florida.

In her arms, she carried a 24-day-old infant son and a small daughter who Docampo believed might die from poor medical care she received in Cuba.

Once in Miami, Docampo sought help with her family at downtown's iconic Freedom Tower, the first stop for many of the disoriented thousands fleeing the communist government of Fidel Castro.

''For me the tower was heaven,'' said Docampo, who credits doctors there with curing her daughter's sickness, which Docampo says was caused by spoiled antibiotics provided by a Cuban medical clinic. ``Going there saved my daughter's life.''

Miami has welcomed generations of huddled masses, but nowhere as warmly as at the Freedom Tower, where teams of translators, doctors and volunteers waited to provide food, medical care and financial support to the 450,000 Cuban refugees who passed through its doors between 1962 and 1974.

The buttery-yellow Mediterranean-style building -- modeled after the Giralda tower in Seville, Spain -- came to be known simply as El Refugio, or ''The Refuge,'' where the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center was housed.

For some refugees, their time in the tower was brief. In the early years, when the Cuban Refugee Program focused heavily on resettlement to other parts of the country, workers at the tower would often give refugees a coat, a ticket north and a small allowance.

For those who remained in Miami, visits to the tower became a regular part of their lives. They went there to pick up food vouchers and to seek out employment referrals.

''The tower is a symbol of the help that was given to the Cubans who came here, and it served us well,'' said Octavio Donnell, 87, who obtained his first job, washing dishes at a Miami Beach hotel, from the refugee agency's job program. ``We all remember it with deep affection.''

Donnell joined often-long lines at the tower to sign up for the $100 monthly check that allowed the family to pay rent until he found work. He also went there for less practical but no less important items -- Christmas presents for his three young daughters.

For Donnell, who had owned his own construction company in Cuba, the prospect of facing the holidays with no gifts for his precious girls was a painful reminder of how dramatically their lives had changed.

The help the family received at the tower was ''even more important for our children than it was for my wife and I,'' he said. ``We didn't have money for anything back then.''

Many Cubans also valued a less tangible commodity the center provided: the feeling of community they found there.

''I thought everyone there would be American, but everyone was Cuban!'' said Docampo, who went to the tower with her husband and three children. ``I felt right at home because you felt protected and embraced.''

The mostly Cuban staff worked long hours during peak periods to attend to the crush of refugees who waited in lines that snaked around the block.

The refugees would ''pour their hearts out to us, telling us about the things that had happened to them and the children they had to leave behind in Cuba,'' said Antoinette Gorrin, 83, who worked as an interviewer in the Tower.

''Sometimes we cried with them,'' Gorrin said of the interviewing staff. ``It was the best job we ever had, because it had a huge meaning because we were helping our fellow Cubans.''

The tower, which was built in 1924 to house The Miami Daily News, later known simply as The Miami News, slipped into long periods of disuse after the refugee program relocated in 1974.

In 1997, the family of Cuban American National Foundation founder Jorge Mas Canosa bought the building and spent $20 million -- some of it from community donations -- to restore it with the idea of later turning it into a museum dedicated to the Cuban exile experience.

In 2005, the family sold it to Terra Group developer Pedro Martín, who sparked a controversy with plans to build a 62-story condominium that would require demolition of the rear part of the tower. He later donated it to Miami Dade College, which is using it as a gallery space.

Former refugees still occasionally visit the tower.

Luz Docampo and her husband, Enrique, brought their children there a decade ago.

''They had always had the perception that it was a place that had been important, but they were so little when they were there that they didn't completely remember,'' said Enrique Docampo. ``We told them that it represented the freedom that we came here looking for.''

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