College student from Palos sees beauty in people, culture of Cuba
Published as part of the May 31, 2012 edition.
By Nikki Holstein
A Palos Hills woman earlier this spring had the opportunity to visit a part of the world relatively few Americans have ever been — or have even been allowed to go.
Nimeh Abualleil, 21, was one of more than a dozen Benedictine University students who traveled to the Cuba, where the students over a period of 10 days in March visited health care clinics and met with doctors to learn more about the communist nation’s health care system. Abualleil is a junior majoring in health science and international business and economics, and aspires for a career as a pharmacist.
“When I heard about the class and the Cuba trip, I honestly couldn’t resist,” Abualleil said. “Cuba is a beautiful country with a rich culture. Travel to Cuba was recently opened [to select United States citizens], so it was definitely an opportunity I couldn’t miss out on.”
Students visited several community farms to look at how the Cubans practice permaculture. In addition to the farms and health care clinics, they toured a medical school, university and performing arts school.
“The main focus of our trip was to study the agriculture and the health care system,” Abualleil said. “The students there get a different approach to medicine. Medical school is free and there is a doctor in every community.”
Abualleil said she found herself surprised at the welcoming, inviting nature of the Cuban people.
“The people there are so unified and united,” she said. “There is no difference between me or you or their cousin. Everyone there is like one big family. I’ve lived on the same street for years and I only know probably one of my neighbors. But they knew everyone. People are so nice and open-minded there, and just very open to meeting us.
“I was walking in the town square with a friend, and a mother came up to me and in the few English words she knew, asked me why I was wearing my headscarf. Her little girl wanted to know. It was very heartwarming. They had such a different reaction to it than people here.”
President Barack Obama in January 2011 amended previous regulations and policies restricting American tourism to Cuba. Jack Thornburg, an associate professor of anthropology at Benedictine University, has taken full advantage of the amendment.
Thornburg, who has been to Cuba four times, initially began planning the study abroad trip last July when he was in Havana for an academic conference.
“I talked to a lot of people [in Havana] about the environmental issues and the community development going on in Cuba,” Thornburg said. “The issues they are dealing with and the ways they are dealing with them I found really interesting. I wanted to bring students down to look at that.”
Thornburg’s anthropology class was centered on Cuban tourism, community development and environmental sustain ability. To prepare for the trip, students read a series of articles and essays on those subjects and added a focus on Cuba. After their return from the island nation they were required to give a 90-minute presentation to the university on their experiences, and follow that up with a research paper.
“My interest is in sustain ability,” Thornburg said. “I think Cubans are very good at that. But the massive tourism on the beaches present a lot of challenges and I wanted to look at that.”
Students visited cities that related to the readings of the class including Havana, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. In an effort to experience face-to-face contact with the Cuban people, Thornburg chose to visit cities that are not frequently traveled by tourists.
“Not many people go to a town like Santa Clara because there is not much there,” he said. “They have a big university, but there’s not much else. I wanted the students to get a better taste of Cuba.”
Thornburg has taken students to several Latin American countries including Venezuela, Costa Rica and Mexico.
“Cuba is different, say, from Costa Rica,” he said. “[Coast Rica’s] been working on tourism for a long time. The Cuban people had a real interest in meeting us because they don’t meet many Americans. In Costa Rica, we’re just part of the scenery.”
The trip allowed Thornburg to get a good look how the Cuban government has been stimulating an open dialogue between itself and communities, he said.
“One of the reasons I took the students to Cuba was because of the tremendous changes going on there,” he said. “The government can’t maintain absolute control over everything. They are encouraging people to start their own businesses and are trying to push people from being on the government payroll into taking care of themselves.”
One of the Cuban government’s greatest worries is the trending toward a capitalistic society, Thornburg said.
“They don’t want to have a small group of people with a lot, and a large group of people with nothing,” he explained. “As it becomes more capitalistic, it becomes a bigger problem. They don’t know if it is going to create resentment.”
Thornburg sees all the changes as a move in the right direction for Cuba.
“The one thing that will really improve things that the Cubans are waiting for is Raul [Castro] to start giving up power to a younger generation,” Thornburg said. “Raul has done a fairly decent job at opening things up, but they want a younger generation with new ideas to come in and open it up even more. There is no absolute guarantee and no one really knows, at this point, where it’s going. I think it’s been for the better, and many academics see it as very positive.”