In Our Own Backyard: An Interview on Elian Gonzalez’s Stay in Washington, D.C., with YFU President Sally Grooms Cowal

 

From May 25 to June 28 of this year, Elian Gonzalez and his family and friends were guests in a colonial era farmhouse located on the Rosedale estate in Washington, D.C. The property is home to Youth For Understanding (YFU), a major international student exchange organization established in 1951, which has owned the Rosedale estate since 1978. The NCSS national offices are also located on the property, in one of three brick buildings that center around the farmhouse. As a result, NCSS staff members became witnesses to an historical event that—beginning with a sad accident, a child’s loss of his mother, and a rescue at sea—came to test our nation’s understanding of family, our immigration laws, and our justice system at the highest level. NCSS staff members watched as security measures were put into place and the media gathered to await the family’s arrival. But mostly, our experience consisted of looking out the windows (unobtrusively, we hoped) as Elian and his friends came out to play after school hours ended each day. How the Gonzalez family became the guests of Youth For Understanding, and what effects the plight of one small boy may yet have on U.S.-Cuban relations, are the subject of this interview with YFU President Sally Grooms Cowal.

 

How did it come about that Elian Gonzalez and his family and friends stayed at Youth For Understanding’s Rosedale estate in Washington, D.C.?

We were asked to host Elian initially, when he was still in Florida with his Miami relatives, by his father’s lawyer, who is a neighbor of ours in the Cleveland Park section of Washington, and walks his dog at Rosedale. Since I am often walking my dog in the park which surrounds our office, one thing just led to another ... but seriously, when Gregory Craig asked us, my first thought was, “Of course. We ask 3,500 families each year to host students from abroad. If we are now asked to play host family, how can we say no?” Then I did some checking with our Board of Trustees and our attorney, and by the end of the weekend when we were approached, we provided a positive answer.

Then the U.S. Marshals and Metropolitan Police were called to assess the security conditions. They vetoed the idea, as the World Bank meetings were going on in D.C., and the police felt they couldn’t protect two sites at the same time. So, when Elian was seized from the Miami family to be reunited with his father, he was located at a rural estate about 75 miles from Washington. After about a month there, when they had been joined by several other Cuban children and parents, they decided that our urban location was better suited to their needs. So on May 25, Elian and his father, stepmother, baby brother, ten-year-old cousin, four first grade classmates, their parents and teacher came to stay with us.

 

Given the circumstances that led to Elian and his family coming to the Rosedale estate, what were you personally most concerned about providing to Elian and his family?

We were most concerned with providing Elian and his family a safe, private, secure, and tranquil place which, at the same time, afforded opportunities to get to know something about American life and people. YFU is responsible for 6,000 cross-cultural, family homestay-based exchanges each year. So we also felt that we could contribute by understanding the issues which arise as children move from one culture to another, from their natural home to host families and then retransmission back to their natural families.

Elian had been through a lot in six months; from small town Cuba and total anonymity, to Miami and total
notability, to returning to his father and eventually to Cuba. That’s a lot for a child to go through, and while we didn’t try to be his psychologist, our experience in providing the right kind of environment was key.

 

How did Elian and his friends spend their time here?

Well, they got up at about 7:30, got dressed in their school uniforms, got their books together, had breakfast prepared by their mothers, and walked to schoo#151;in this case, just down the corridor of the 18th century farmhouse where they were staying. Then, with their teacher, they had school from 8:30 to 12:30. They were very serious about it. We had set up two rows of tables where the kids sat and faced a blackboard. A local international school sent over some supplemental materials in Spanish for reading and watching videos. Elian hadn’t been in school since November, so he had a lot of catching up to do. It was pretty basic: reading, writing, arithmetic.

In the afternoons, after a big lunch, the children played in the yard or went on an excursion. Lots of our neighbors who have swimming pools invited them over and often they went. Elian learned to swim and to ride a two-wheel bike. My dog sometimes went over to play.

 

What did you perceive as Juan Miguel Gonzalez’s attitude toward the United States? Did it change during his time as a guest of YFU?

I saw Juan Miguel as a very balanced individual. On the one hand, he was impatient to get home, and not at all ready to face endless delays in the judicial system, especially if—at the end of the day—he would somehow be separated from his son. On the other hand, he was personally charming and open, and sought to learn about Americans, although he was limited by communications difficulties. He told the children that they had to be patient while the courts deliberated, and that they should take advantage of the unique opportunities which being in Washington afforded them. He expressed several times in the days and hours leading up to their departure that he hoped his stay and the plight of his family would pave the way for closer relationships between Cuba and the U.S.A. He was a very loyal Cuban, but not in the least anti-American. He expressed support for the idea of exchanges and that Elian should be an exchange student one day.

 

Is YFU developing an exchange program in which U.S. students could go to Cuba, and Cuban students come here?

I have received a license from the U.S. Treasury Department that is required for Americans to go to Cuba, and expect to go to Cuba to begin discussions with the government and nongovernmental organizations about an exchange program in early September. We have proposed an initial four week program for 15- to 18-year-olds from Cuba, the U.S., Canada, and several Latin American countries, to take place in both the United States and Cuba, to discuss conflict resolution and values that would allow us to live together peacefully in our hemisphere.

What effect do you think the Elian case will have on U.S.-Cuban relations in the future?

Well, I think that it is a good starting point to break down the stereotypes on both sides which have paralyzed this relationship for forty years. A lot of things seem to be coming together, including easing the embargo, which will make this possible. With Elian’s father and the head of the Cuban interest section in Washington (the equivalent of an ambassador), we several times discussed how this case could be a breakthrough on both sides. We hope it will be, and that YFU will have played a small but important role in overcoming one of the most intransigent conflicts of our time.

 

Through its student exchange programs, Youth For Understanding arranges for
U.S students aged 15-22 to live overseas and for foreign students in the same age group to live in the United States. Since its inception in 1951, YFU has exchanged almost 200,000 students. For information about its programs, contact 1-800-TEENAGE, or write to Youth For Understanding, 3501 Newark St., NW, Washington, DC 20016.