Kirenia Figueroa Ballester, a mother and dentist from Cuba, came to the United States last summer by way of Mexico. She was one of 8,000 Cuban immigrants to settle in Louisville last year.
She left her native country with her two teenage children because she felt stuck and threatened in Cuba, she said during a recent interview with the help of an interpreter. Shaki Palacios, a Catholic Charities of Louisville employee, translated Figueroa Ballester’s Spanish into English.
“So first, in Cuba there’s no freedom of expression,” said Figueroa Ballester. “At work, I was being stalked. I was being stalked because of the difference in ideas; I don’t share a lot of the ideology there. … And I was also being threatened.”
As a dentist in Cuba, she said she was pressured to misrepresent the resources and treatments available to patients — promising treatments that would never come. She refused, she said, and eventually her conversations with patients were monitored and censored.
“It went as far as them not allowing me in any work meetings because they knew I would be someone who would speak up,” she said. “It was like existing without existing; like I had no voice.”
The family left Cuba heading south across the Caribbean Sea to Nicaragua. Their journey then took them north through Mexico and into the United States through the southwest border. Their journey was repeated by tens of thousands last year. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports encounters with more than 220,000 Cuban immigrants nationwide in 2022.
From the border, the family traveled to Kansas, where they stayed for about a month. They arrived in Kentucky last July.
Figueroa Ballester initially crossed into the U.S. as a temporary parolee, which “allows an individual, who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the United States, to be paroled into the United States for a temporary period,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
She has since applied for asylum, but Palacios said cases like Figueroa Ballester’s are often denied. Asylum seekers must be able to prove they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to things such as race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Another route is available to her and other Cubans in similar circumstances. Once she’s been here one year and a day, Figueroa Ballester will be eligible to apply for lawful permanent residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.
Figueroa Ballester said the move has meant big adjustments, but she’s grateful for the opportunities here. For now, she and her teenagers live with a cousin in the Klondike neighborhood.
“It’s very different,” she said, especially for her children. “It is extremely different for them, but compared to what they were going through in Cuba, they’re obviously very glad.”
“They’re trying to currently learn the language and go to school. My daughter’s in high school right now and my son is currently in college.”
She noted that the biggest difference is the sense of community and socialization for children. Palacios also said that’s a common theme among the immigrants she works with at Catholic Charities.
“Normally in Cuba, when children are outside they come together more, they have more togetherness with each other, they talk to each other a lot more,” Figueroa Ballester said. “There’s a big change here because here you’re not able to do that as much.
“Everything else is perfect because they have all the things that they lacked in Cuba, but that part tends to be difficult,” she said.
Figueroa Ballester said she is working to create her own community. She has met other Cuban immigrants, Africans and others from different ethnic backgrounds. She joined a sewing group and stays in contact with her English teachers at Catholic Charities to help her learn the language faster.
“I would love for everyone to know that I am so grateful for everyone here. The people at the school, especially the staff … do an excellent job,” she said.
“They try to understand everyone. I do want them to know that, you know, even though people come here at different levels with traumas, with other experiences, I’m still very grateful that they do an excellent job,” she said.
Before leaving Cuba, Figueroa Ballester said she had been warned about the U.S. — specifically about the divisive nature of U.S. politics.
“It hasn’t been like that at all,” she said. Everyone has been very helpful “from the very first meeting I had when they explained our benefits and how to apply for food stamps, for the money and help we’ve gotten from the government … all the way to attorneys. And the teachers are wonderful, I can’t speak enough about how much they care.”
Trauma is something that most immigrants experience, Figueroa Ballester said, and adjusting psychologically to a new way of life takes time.
“But little by little, we started adapting,” she said. “The church (Catholic Charities) is a great way to connect with others going through similar situations.”
While Figueroa Ballester worked as a dentist in Cuba, she’s not licensed here — and with her pending asylum status, she’s unable to obtain work authorization. She said she hopes to take comparable courses and work in the dental field in the U.S. eventually, but for now she’s focused on learning English and adjusting to her new life.
For her children, “It’s very different. It is extremely different for them, but compared to what they were going through in Cuba, they’re obviously very glad.”Kirenia Figueroa Ballester, Cuban immigrant