Two girls — Monica and Daniella — fled Cuba to find a future they choose for themselves

Monica and Danielle. (Courtesy of Hannah Orenstein / Malala Fund)

Monica and Danielle. (Courtesy of Hannah Orenstein / Malala Fund)

“It’s too cold,” Monica says of her new home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “But I’m happier. Here you can go to school to be whatever you want. In Cuba, they give you what they want you to be.” Cuba boasts the strongest education system in Latin America. In the communist island nation, girls are free to learn, but girls are not free to choose what they want to do with their education.

19 year-old Monica is just one of many immigrants who have resettled in Lancaster. Born and raised in Cuba, she grew up going to top schools, but her family decided to leave and move to the United States in search of freedom and greater opportunity.

She and her family arrived one year ago. When Monica arrived, she didn’t have friends to help her adjust. She learned English through ESL classes and watching some of her favourite shows like The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and Orange Is The New Black. Now, she enjoys befriending other Latin students and helping them practice their English.

One of her friends is Daniella, 18, who also left Cuba with her family. She’s finishing up her junior year at McCaskey High School. She loves to dance and practiced ballet in Cuba. Even though she started school too late in the semester to join student groups, she hopes to join the dance team next year and is considering joining a club to mentor incoming freshman.

Monica and her mother at their home in Lancaster, PA. (Courtesy Hannah Orenstein / Malala Fund)

Monica and her mother at their home in Lancaster, PA. (Courtesy Hannah Orenstein / Malala Fund)

The girls miss home. Monica’s older brother, who is studying to be a doctor, is not allowed to leave Cuba during his education. When asked about the separation, she glanced at her mother and her tone softened, “We have contact by internet but it’s not enough; for my mom or my dad, too.” Cuban citizens need permission to leave the island and the process is grueling and expensive.

The decision for both families to leave was not easy. A doctor, Daniella’s mother obtained permission to temporarily practice in Brazil . Once there, the family went to the American Embassy and requested asylum.

Though citizens in Cuba are highly educated, they don’t get to choose their careers and receive meager wages for their work. For example, doctors in Cuba make no more (and oftentimes less) money than cab drivers, who can receive tips from tourists.

While we often talk about girls who have to convince their parents to let them go to school, both Daniella’s mother and Monica’s parents sacrificed everything to give their children more opportunities in the US. Monica’s mother has a bachelor’s degree in french literature and her father is a mechanical engineer. Now in Lancaster, they work as cooks at Franklin and Marshall college until their english improves and they can secure other jobs. Similarly, Daniella’s mother, a doctor in Cuba, cannot practice in the United States because license is not recognized. Until she can learn english, study and afford the medical board exams, she’s working as a nurse’s aid.

Daniella and her mother, Theresa, in their home in Lancaster, PA. (Courtesy Hannah Orenstein / Malala Fund)

Daniella and her mother, Theresa, in their home in Lancaster, PA. (Courtesy Hannah Orenstein / Malala Fund)

In Cuba the barriers affecting citizens don’t prevent students from going to school, they limit how education is used when students graduate. Education in Cuba is adapted to the needs of the government. Monica explained that if the government need more doctors, students will be told to study medicine. If the government needs more farm workers, they will be forced to study agriculture.

In April, Malala visited Lancaster as her first stop on her Girl Power Trip to meet with girls and learn about the barriers they face. Daniella attended the school assembly where Malala spoke and expressed how inspiring her speech was saying, “Education help girls become someone and not be naive.”

Monica felt that Malala’s story made her consider raising her voice about negative narratives she often hears about immigrants coming into the US. She said, “Sometimes I feel that people only think of Cubans as people coming on a raft. We come here for a purpose. I came for an education, a future and because my parents want more for me. You can make your own future here. You can work to be someone here.”

On June 15 with her proud parents in attendance, Monica will graduate before heading off to Harrisburg Community College. Her goal is to improve her English enough to be able to transfer to Franklin and Marshall College on scholarship and study psychology.

Daniella has one year left in high school, and also hopes to attend Franklin and Marshall College after graduation. She is not sure what career she will choose yet. Maybe she will become a doctor like her mom, but she is glad to know her future isn’t written in stone. She is free to learn, explore and create a life she chooses for herself.



McKinley Tretler is communications manager at Malala Fund. She’s on the hunt for the perfect Oreo milkshake and to befriend Mindy Kaling.