Gabriela Barbería thought that the struggles she faced in her native country, Cuba, would end once she set foot in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
She learned, however, that this is not always a reality. Refugees, and especially immigrants, face many barriers once they reach our shores.
Serving as a psychology teacher in Cuba and earning $30 a month, Barbería decided to immigrate to the United States in search of a better life.
"Everyone has their perspective on life and although I lived more or less well in Cuba, the money was basically for food and I knew I wanted something more," she says.
A Spanish nationality law for descendants born abroad allowed Barbería to travel to the city of Miami in 2014 accompanied by her mother Elsa María Iglesias Pujols.
"I cried because we had left my husband, my sister and my father behind and now we had nowhere to go." My mom, who is a Christian woman, would tell me that by the grace of God we had come here and we needed to have faith," she says.
An airport employee named Irene, who had observed Barbería's desperation, approached her to comfort her.
"She told me to wait until her work shift ended and then she would try to help us," Gabriela recalls.
Two women traveling alone and with no belongings, Barbería and her mother spent the night at the airport without food and unable to sleep until the next morning when Irene took them to World Church Service (CWS).
At that time, U.S. immigration policy allowed Cubans who came to the United States to legally enter the country and, under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, obtain legal residency after one year and citizenship after five years.
Barbería and her mother decided to seek permanent residence.
"I had heard that the United States provided housing, transportation and assistance for three months to Cuban immigrants," Barbería says.
Although most refugees and immigrants are happy to get any job that is available when they first enter the country, the process can be difficult and finding affordable and safe housing is expensive. In addition, the language barrier makes completing basic tasks such as buying food or filling out forms extremely frustrating.
"We met a pastor in Miami who introduced us to a parishioner from his church and we stayed at this woman’s house for almost a month. My mom cooked and helped with the cleaning," Barbería says. "Señora Lourdes helped us a lot and we went to church every Sunday with her."
Soon after, Barbería and her mother were told by representatives of CWS that they would be sent to New York, Texas, Pennsylvania or Kentucky.
"Every time I moved from one place to another I felt as if I was taking a step further away from my husband, from Lourdes ... Everything was very symbolic for me ... Just when I would get used to a place or someone, I had to move and start again," Barbería says. "Despite the help, I had doubts about everything from the very first day I arrived and wanted to return to Cuba."
However, her determination and desire to get ahead were much stronger, and Barbería chose to move to Pennsylvania. They arrived at the Harrisburg International Airport where they were met by a social worker from CWS.
The agency had reserved an apartment for the women in Lancaster City and helped secure employment for them in Carlisle, Cumberland County. Later, a local Pentecostal congregation helped them with clothing, food and transportation.
Barbería also reached out to an uncle in New York who, together with his wife, traveled to Lancaster to help furnish her apartment.
Barbería says the challenges she faced when she arrived in Lancaster made her feel sad and somewhat lost.
"I thought things were going to be easier. I knew I had to work, but it's not the same to hear stories as to experience new life here, get used to the weather, people, rejection ... the issue of discrimination had never crossed my mind," she says.
From performing well in her work to improving her education, buying food or simply finding her own way around, Barbería came to the realization that learning the English language was essential.
Her future became much brighter when she got a job and enrolled in English classes.
"My English teacher told me not to worry because everything would be fine," Barbería recalls. "I had to learn English quickly. I knew I had opportunities here if I would just focus on what I needed to do.
"I attended all the classes," she says. "I improved my English, then I got a better job, a driver's license, a permanent residence, a car and a new apartment, and I saved enough money to bring my family to the United States."
In short, the process of immigrating to the United States has made her stronger.
With a full-time job at Dart Container Corp. and a part-time job as a teacher’s aide in the School District of Lancaster, Barbería still has bigger plans. She is taking the required courses at Millersville University to obtain her teaching credentials.
"When I think about where I came from and where I am today... now I can say that this is perfect, the United States is good, I like Lancaster," she says.
Having gone through this experience makes her feel better prepared to face difficult situations.
"This country is a place where you have to be patient. Yes, there are many barriers and you will experience fear, but you have to face them, you cannot become your own obstacle to getting ahead, you have to be strong and courageous," she says.