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    Tuesday, January 31, 2023

    Stonington fishing boat owner rescues 13 Cuban refugees off Florida

    Refugees in the Straits of Florida on Tuesday, when found by Joe Gilbert. Photo courtesy of Joe Gilbert.
    A Coast Guard boat pulls alongside a boat carrying Cuban of refugees in international waters on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Joe Gilbert.
    Joe Gilbert, owner of Scallops Empire and Empire Fisheries, aboard his boat Furious at the Stonington Town Dock. Day file photo.

    Stonington ― On Tuesday, Joe Gilbert, owner of four Town Dock fishing boats, was 20 miles from shore in the Straits of Florida doing some pleasure fishing with a friend when he spotted something in the distance.

    As he drew closer, he recognized it was a Cuban chug, a makeshift vessel often cobbled together from items such as scrap metal, wooden pallets or foam and small engines from lawnmowers or cars.

    It was not the first chug he had seen in Florida.

    “Some of these you wouldn’t try to go to Fisher’s Island across the Sound in these things and they’re risking their lives, for days at sea, to escape those conditions,” he said.

    Usually, the chugs he sees are empty, having been tagged by the Coast Guard to indicate the people have been rescued, but this one was full of people.

    “That boat couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22 feet long and there were 13 people on it,” said the owner of Empire Fisheries.

    Gilbert said the cleverly crafted boat was fashioned from metal pipe frames and wood pallets with the words “Dios es mi patron,” written on the side, which, loosely translated means, “God is my boss.”

    He said there were blue barrels inside to provide buoyancy and serve as seating, but it was leaking, and the engine was not working.

    “There was dehydration; they were hungry, there were seasick people. Some were just laying on the floor and couldn’t move,” he said, adding one of the men was waving a stick with a flag on it, which Gilbert has saved as a keepsake of the encounter.

    Gilbert does not speak Spanish, and the 13 refugees did not speak English, so their story unfolded through gestures and a few common words between them.

    He learned they had been at sea for six days and they had been without food or water for two days.

    “That was just glaring -- the disparity of us pulling alongside—us and them,” he said, adding he told his friend, “we’re going to give them everything we have.”

    Gilbert and his friend were only out for the day, so what they had was not much, but they gave the 12 men and one woman all the food and water they had, and watched as they split everything up into small silver-dollar sized pieces so everyone got some.

    “To see their faces on the boat really changed things for me. I knew it was going on, but I just never came face to face with 13 human beings who were desperate,” he said.

    He was struck by how much the 13 people had risked to get just a little of what he has.

    “As Americans, I wouldn’t just call us blessed; we are favored, as a nation, in our status in the world, with our standard of living, and a lot of people want to come and they want to emulate what Americans have and do,” he said.

    “We stood by with them until the Coast Guard came,” he said, adding that the Coast Guard treated them both fairly and compassionately, while running through safety protocols. He said he watched while the passengers were removed to a Coast Guard vessel and then to a larger cutter.

    He said he doesn’t know what happened to the refugees after they were taken aboard the cutter, but current policy is to not allow migrants found at sea to enter the United States, and instead, to repatriate them to their home country.

    And though a new program, Welcome Corps, announced by the Biden Administration on Thursday will accept 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela each month, it will only assist individuals who become preapproved while outside of the United States. Those arriving illegally will be expelled from the U.S. and will be banned from reentering the country for five years.

    He said that the story of his personal experience with a Cuban refugee crisis that saw more than 500 Cuban refugees land in the Florida Keys between December 31 and January 4 alone, should not be about him, but about civic duty, and he would have done more for them if he had been able to.

    “What I hope we could all get from this is that we live a blessed life. God has blessed us with resources in plenty,” he said, adding, “when we can, we should help. That’s what Americans have always done. It’s what we’re known for, and it’s what we should always be known for all over the world.”

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