In Cuba, the darkness that surrounded 15-year-old Katherine Sanchez was more than just physical — it was emotional.
Blind since birth, Katherine endured first the medical shortcomings that led to her loss of sight, then the academic deficiencies of her country that led to a disjointed education, and finally the emotional abuse of classmates — and even teachers — who bullied her relentlessly, she said.
One visually impaired classmate would get aggressive with her, repeatedly hitting her on the arms. Teachers at her school often ridiculed her for her weight. And one teacher took pleasure in scaring her, draping a white sheet over her head like a ghost and sneaking up on Katherine.
“They would go, ‘Ahhhh,’ ” said Katherine, who would then be reprimanded for getting frightened.
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She is scared of ghosts now.
The incidents culminated in Katherine seeking a psychologist for help and Katia Triana, her mother, seeking a way out of Cuba.
As a Spanish citizen, Triana had previously been able to travel from Cuba to Miami, where she has a brother, several times. On her trips, she would take note of the services available for blind children, each one a door that could potentially open Katherine’s future. Armed with a list of opportunities, Triana approached her husband, Reynel Sanchez, about the possibility of leaving Cuba more than a year and a half ago.
It would be a risk. She would be moving to a place where she knew very few people. And she would be leaving behind her husband and two older children. But Triana was dead set on creating a new life for Katherine, away from their tiny, wooden home in a central Cuban town called Morón.
“I had him see the reality of how we were living. I said, ‘I know we are going to face challenges in the U.S. ...but I believe I am strong enough to face that situation,’ ” Triana said. “ ‘We already lived what we were going to live. She is the one that is re-surging. She is the one that has to have possibilities at a life, which she will have in that country.’ There were more pros than cons. And for her, he decided yes.”
So on July 19, 2016, Katherine and Triana moved to Miami.
In the U.S., they lead a difficult life, but one that has solved many of the challenges they faced in Cuba.
Katherine said she loves her school, G. Holmes Braddock High School in Kendall, where she has a teacher who specializes in educating visually impaired students. A talkative, caring girl with long brown hair and a fearless mindset much like her mother’s, Katherine says she is treated well by her classmates and teachers. She proudly displays her Superior Principal’s Honor Roll for all A’s and B’s and Braille Most Improved English certificates from the previous school year. “She is very smart,” her mom said.
Friends in Miami gave her a keyboard, which she taught herself to play, and a portable radio, which she listens to every day tuning into Amor 107.5 FM and Zeta 92.3 FM. And every Saturday she goes to Miami Lighthouse for the Blind.
I had [my husband] see the reality of how we were living. I said, ‘I know we are going to face challenges in the U.S. ...but I believe I am strong enough to face that situation.
Katia Triana, Katherine’s mom
Reinaldo Sanchez, a transition coordinator at Lighthouse who has worked directly with Katherine to teach her orientation mobility, computer and social skills, said he admires the family’s drive.
“It takes a lot of courage and a lot of risk and a lot of sacrifice to do something like that. It’s what any good parent should do for their child,” Sanchez said. “[Katherine] has handled it so well. She is very strong and very smart for her age and for her circumstances. She really listens and she tries and she makes every effort.”
But while some problems have been solved, others get worse by the day.
“I am a person who doesn’t give up,” Triana said. “But if my husband was here, I’d be doing better.”
Triana said she is eager to work, and has done some odd jobs, but part-time hours at places she has applied often conflict with Katherine’s school. And, as Katherine’s sole caretaker, Triana has to be home by 3 p.m. when the teenager gets back from high school. Having her husband nearby would ease the burden, she said.
Katherine and her mom get by on a monthly disability check, $730, which is rationed carefully: $500 to rent a room in someone’s home, $50 to the phone bill, $30 to a credit card and the rest to everyday expenses — barely enough to save up for an application to bring her husband to the U.S.
They receive $200 for food stamps and, without a car, move around through a combination of the bus, Metrorail, Uber and walking.
For the past year and four months, they’ve slept on a king-size air mattress. It has broken three times.
Katherine Sanchez and her mother need a laptop, furniture and other everyday needs, such as toiletries and clothing.
They have one flower-patterned blanket and Katherine’s three stuffed animals: a beige bear named Santiago, a pink unicorn named Miguel and a green frog named Marcos Montalban. Their possessions fit in about three suitcases.
Through a recent stroke of luck, they secured an apartment in downtown Miami with another brother who just arrived from Cuba and agreed to split the rent. And they had a bed donated. But otherwise, the apartment is bare. And while Triana recoils at the thought of asking for donations, she accepts that they are in need of some basic furniture: a dining room table, maybe a couch, perhaps bedside tables.
Most of all, Triana said, she needs a job. Her hope is to one day work with special needs kids, but she is open to anything that will keep the pair of them afloat a little longer.
Katherine, whose English is progressing well, needs an HP or Dell laptop with the speech reader program JAWS.
She has other wishes too: To go to a Marlins game (her team is the Ciego de Avila Tigers in Cuba, but she can come to love the Marlins, she said). She said she really wants to see Santa’s Enchanted Forest at Tropical Park this holiday season, which she has heard about on the radio.
“I want to go see Santa Clause because I don’t know him,” she said. “I know he’s a man who’s in disguise but I don’t know who he is.”
Down the line is the hope of securing an appointment at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, where they can finally learn whether Katherine’s retinopathy of prematurity, the result of a botched attempt to control an infection she had at birth, could be treated.
Despite her disability, Katherine keeps dreaming big: She wants to be a doctor.
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. (The most requested items are laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email email@example.com. (The most requested items are laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.