Cuban-born Guillermo Cairo, 62, smiled at the camera while holding his 2-year-old son, Roman, on his lap. For more than three decades, the slightly torn black and white photo snapped in Cairo’s home, in 1980 Soviet Union-era Ukraine, was the only tangible memento the Hialeah resident kept of his first born child.
Cairo and his son, Roman Guillermo Bish Tizarenco, who is now 37, embraced again for the first time this past July. Cairo saved money for a few months and bought a round-trip plane ticket to Kiev, where he spent a week and a half reuniting with Roman and spending quality time with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Anastasia, who he had never met.
On his way to Kiev, Cairo had layovers in New York and Amsterdam. He told his son his arrival time, but realized he did so in New York time and not in Kiev time. He decided to call him and let him know since the error represented a seven-hour difference. When he arrived he asked “Did you wait for me for a long time?”
The response? “Yes, for 35 years.”
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“Throughout all those years, I never stopped thinking of my son. Not for one minute,” said Cairo, who moved from Cuba to Miami three years ago. “As soon as I arrived in Miami, I started looking for him, searching online, and as it turns out he had been looking for me, too, but I’m sure none of this would have happened without the help of Raquel Cesar and her Facebook page, ‘Buscando Familias y Amigos’ (Searching for Family and Friends).”
Cesar, a 64-year-old former Miami-Dade Public Schools’ secretary, who was born in Havana, was the link between father and son.
Through her Facebook page, the retiree has dedicated her time for more than a year to helping people find lost family members and childhood friends.
“On Buscando Familia y Amigos Raquel met a woman, who was one of the producers of ZhdiMenya, which translates to ‘Wait for me’ in English. It’s a show on Russian television in which stories of family and friends, often separated by a tragic event, life circumstances or simply destiny are reunited,” Cairo said.
“So, this producer got in touch with Raquel and she started doing her detective work and found me. First she found one of my brothers, who lives in Chile, and then another living in Cuba and another who also lives in Miami and finally was able to reach me. When she told me that my son was searching for me, had written a letter to ‘Wait for me’ and had been actively searching for me for the last four years, I had no words. I just couldn’t believe it!”
As were many other students, Cairo was sent from Cuba to Ukraine to complete his university studies, as part of a friendly political agreement between Cuba and the Soviet Union, which included student exchanges. He studied at the Polytechnic Institute of Kiev and earned a degree as an electro-mechanic. He met a girl, fell in love, married her and a couple of years later, Roman Guillermo was born.
“When my six-year stay in the Soviet Union was over, I was told I had to go back to Cuba,” Cairo said. “Of course, I wanted to take my wife and my child with me but the government did not allow it. Later on, the Soviet Union disbanded, the relationship between both nations kind of soured and things got complicated, so I lost total contact with my family and never heard from my wife, at the time, or my son again, until now.”
Since their reunion Cairo and Roman talk on Skype almost every day. He regularly sees and speaks to his granddaughter Anastasia and was introduced to newborn baby Melania through the Internet. He is estranged from his first wife and has remarried.
“Being able to hold my granddaughter in my arms, hearing her call me ‘Ded’, grandfather, and listening to my son tell me how much he wants to see me again and making plans to visit here in the United States, and plans to meet his two half brothers, it’s everything,” Cairo said. “We talk about going to Disney World and he’s learning curse words in Spanish [laughs], it means everything to me and I couldn’t be more grateful, the work Raquel does is so valuable and so humanitarian on her part that I just can’t thank her enough.”
A DESIRE TO DISCOVER
Cesar never imagined herself as the recipient of so many heartfelt words of gratitude or as a bridge connecting long lost relatives.
“It all started when my coworkers joked that I wasn’t a natural blonde and insisted my hair was blonde because I dyed it,” said Cesar, who left her home in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood and relocated to Miami when she was 17 years old. “So I told them ‘I’ll prove it to you,’ and looked for an old black and white photograph I had of myself as a child, in which I’m sitting next to one of my older cousins, Alejandra Contreras.”
When her coworkers saw the photo and asked her about her cousin, Cesar realized she had no idea what happened to her cousin once they both left Cuba.
“I honestly hadn’t even thought about her for years and all of a sudden, all these memories of us came rushing back and I had somewhat of a desperate urge to find her,” she said.
And so began the first search of countless searches Cesar has done since then.
Her first stop was Google. She searched for her cousin’s name and after clicking on several links learned her cousin was deceased. Unable to fully accept the news and hoping the deceased person wasn’t her cousin but instead someone else with the same name, Cesar contacted the Pedro Pan organization in Miami to ask for more information. Unfortunately, it turned out her cousin had died.
However, Cesar’s curiosity had been piqued and her desire to search for others from her past drew her to the Internet. She then searched for a friend from kindergarten and another from first grade and so on.
“I have to admit that not all searches have happy endings. I learned that early on when I found out about my cousin passing and later when some of my former friends weren’t as happy to hear from me as I was to have found them,” said Cesar, who adds that despite this, she wanted to help others in search of their own loved ones find closure, or perhaps to lead them to happier reunions than her own.
“And there’s been so many thrilling, exciting, joyous, happy, happy ones!” she adds.
FRIENDS ‘SINCE FOREVER’
That was the case with Cuban-born Kendall resident Elizabeth Miranda.
Miranda, 50, stumbled upon Cesar’s page on Facebook. She became a member and read countless posts detailing stories of people finding relatives and friends whom they had not seen in years.
“I wondered is this true? Is it real? Do they charge for helping people find who they’re looking for?” said Miranda, who wanted to surprise her husband by finding Juan de Dios Cepeda, his family doctor in Cuba, who he always said was like a second father to him and had been a family friend “since forever.”
“This country is very big and when you try finding someone you’ve lost touch with on your own, it can be very difficult and daunting, you’d probably have to hire a private detective and spend a lot of money so I reached out to Raquel and asked her help.”
Soon Miranda realized Cesar’s work was completely gratuitous.
“She does it all out of the goodness of her heart and it’s surprising to know that people like her still exist, like her and like the rest of the administrators who donate their time to helping others,” Miranda said. “In a matter of two days, Raquel gave me our family friend’s phone number and address and we realized he lived less than two blocks away from us.”
When Miranda surprised her husband with the news, he was shocked and excited. The couple phoned Cepeda, 71, who now works at Mercy Hospital, and the feeling was mutual. He didn’t hesitate to invite them to his home.
“It was an emotional reunion to say the least, we were all moved to tears and then laughs and we were so caught up in the moment we didn’t take a single photo,” she said, her voice cracking and her eyes filling with tears.
“Raquel never mentioned money, she has helped so many people and I love logging on and reading of other reunions and stories, which sometimes involve people in other countries. It’s honestly impressive because my husband hadn’t seen his friend in 20 years and had already lost hope.”
A PAGE IS BORN
“Hope is the last thing a person should ever lose!” said Cesar, who in April 2014, with the help of her husband, Pedro Rivero, 69, opened the “Searching for Family and Friends” Facebook page.
“It’s amazing the way that the page kind of took off and quickly took on a life of its own,” said Rivero, who helps Cesar manage the site as one of the page’s nine unpaid administrators, some of whom live in Nevada and New Jersey, and countries as far as Canada, Costa Rica and Spain.
“And even more amazing is what we’ve been able to do through this group. We’ve united about 500 families, and what drives us is the feeling we get when we see the expressions of utter joy on people’s faces when they’re reunited with their relatives. There’s so much happiness, laughs, tears, it’s truly impressive and inpactful and it’s what inspires us to keep doing what we’re doing and helping more and more people.”
“Searching for Family and Friends” is a members-only closed group on Facebook but anyone can join by clicking the “like” button on the top right hand corner of the page. Members can also invite others to join by sending them an email invitation. Once a person joins, they will start receiving page updates on their news feeds and can contribute information they may have on existing searches or ask for help in starting one of their own. The page now has about 21,000 members.
“Searching for Family and Friends” page admins take turns logging in on different days and times of the week and responding to each and every comment and post. They’re also responsible for monitoring comments of a negative, derogatory or highly political or religious nature and for letting members know when the relative or friend they were searching for has been located.
However, none of the page’s administrators receives any type of compensation for the work.
“From the beginning, my purpose was never to make any money,” Cesar said. “I created this group and this page with the mission of uniting families and friends, with love and for love.”