Going beyond politics to help Cubans now
BY MIRTA OJITO
There are people you talk to who are so inspiring, so full of life, so
driven and so enthusiastic, that you feel the urge to drop everything
and run to join them. Talking to Carmen Vallejo was just like that. Only
I couldn't run to her. She lives in Cuba and I'm in New York, but we are
separated, it turns out, only by water and distance.
Carmen and her husband Rey Febles, give love, joy and support to about
200 children and youngsters with cancer. With the help of foreign
friends, Carmen and Rey throw birthday parties, celebrate Halloween,
Christmas, and produce theater and musical shows for the entertainment
of children some of whom are so sick that they have forgotten how to smile.
But soon enough they remember. Talk to Carmen for a while, or visit her
website at desdecuba.com/carmenyrey and you will too. I found myself
laughing with her when she told me a story of one of their youngsters,
mutilated by cancer, who one day said, ``Today I woke up with my right
foot,'' a translation of a Spanish saying that means everything is going
right. ``Of course,'' the girl went on, ``I always do. My left leg is
I heard about Carmen and Rey through Luly Duke, whose New York-based
foundation Amistad is one of the friends the Cuban couple depends on.
Duke, who is Cuban American and whose maiden name is Alcebo Fundora left
Cuba in 1960, when she was 14. In 1975 she married Anthony Drexel Duke,
of the famed Duke family that made its original fortune on tobacco. Duke
University is named for the family.
Needless to say, Luly Duke could live a life of luxury in the Hamptons,
where she has a home, and belongs to groups such as the Garden Club of
East Hamptons. But Duke has long had a humanitarian and activist streak.
Many years ago, she joined her husband's work in The Harbor for Boys and
Girls, Inc, a multiservice organization for inner-city children, which
In 1995, after 35 years in exile, Duke returned to Cuba and her life
``I realized the people of Cuba needed help and I was in a position to
help,'' she says simply.
And for some reason, Duke makes the very complicated, very political,
very exhausting topic of Cuba sound new, simple and refreshing. Help is
needed. We can give it. Why not do it?
Why not, indeed? The needs of the Cuban people are overwhelming:
everything from toilet paper to food, coloring pencils, aspirin and
Duke has focused her funding on educational, cultural and medical needs
-- three areas, where, by the way, the Cuban government boasts of
excelling. But Duke doesn't discuss politics. To do what she does, she
has managed to earn the trust and good will of both the U.S. and the
Cuban governments and focus on her foundation's mission: to build
bridges to Cuba. She has a license from the Treasury Department and
maintains good relations with U.S. and Cuban officials.
In addition to donating more than 3,000 pounds of over-the-counter
medicines and medical supplies for Carmen and Rey's kids, Fundación
Amistad has, among other things, sent about 1,000 pounds of sports
equipment, and, with partners, more than $90,000 in medical supplies and
technical books to three medical centers in Havana.
Duke said she would like to see Carmen and Rey's work serve even more
kids in other areas of Cuba, but the foundation, like others in these
times of economic uncertainty, is hurting for funds. To keep afloat,
they need to raise $45,000 before the end of the year.
Carmen, who is deeply religious, said she and her husband started the
program after Mother Teresa visited Cuba in 1988 and asked her to take
care of children with cancer. Carmen was serving as her translator
during the visit.
She said her group is ``tolerated'' by the Cuban authorities, who don't
like the fact that she takes the children wherever they are invited, be
it the home of a foreign western ambassador or a meeting with Eusebio
Leal, Havana's historian.
``What we do is beyond politics, religion and race,'' Carmen said. ``We
just want to ease the very real pain of these kids and see them smile.''
Duke has the same approach. She has already established the bridge.
Others can walk with her or build their own.