Photo by Filip Vidinovski.
The four-hour journey began for Victor Alvarez Molina with a phone call. Leave Cuba, his wife warned him. Though it remains unclear what desperate circumstances were behind the call that impelled the 22-year old Havana Airport employee to then flee his native country, what we know is that it wasn’t long before he had tucked himself inside the landing gear of an airplane bound for Montreal, Canada, in 2002. Stowaways of his kind have about a 20 percent chance of survival, and with only a windbreaker as his carry-on, Molina was ill-prepared against the potentially fatal temperatures which would drop to as low as -55 degrees Fahrenheit after the plane took off into the stratosphere. In his hand he clutched a picture of his daughter, and in his mind’s eye a rose-colored image of Montreal, bearing the faint promise of freedom and economic opportunity. For more than four hours he prayed, hoping to survive a journey that for most ends in death.
Terrified, deprived of oxygen and becoming hypothermic, Molina cozied up to a leaky heat pipe for air. He might not make it there alive, and if he did, he also couldn’t be sure that Canada would even accept him. In 2000, a Cuban refugee like himself was sent home from France after the courts rejected his application on the grounds that he didn’t have adequate proof of oppression. The man, Roberto Viza Egües, had crept through security into an Air France storage container to escape a death threat tied to his involvement in a political dissident group called the February 24 movement. By the time he arrived in Paris, Egües had miraculously endured 14 hours of below-freezing cold and low oxygen, only to be sent back to Cuba where lived in fear of being persecuted.
Victor Alvarez Molina stumbled onto the tarmac of the Dorval Airport in Montreal, exhausted and unable to speak in his hypothermic condition. All things considered, he was extraordinarily lucky: he managed not to be crushed or to fall from the landing gear, not to freeze to death or to suffocate in the thin air. On the ground, he was treated for hypothermia, ultimately being granted refugee status by the Canadian government. Today, he works as an auto repair man who can fix your tire pressure gauge in under 15 minutes, is learning French, and dreams of his wife and daughter flying north to join him in Montreal, ideally under friendlier circumstances.