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Alva James-Johnson: What if your relatives lived in Cuba?

Special to the Ledger-Enquirer 
 This is a photo of Rina Andalia Ramis, an epidemiologist in Cuba, when she was a little girl. Ramis, now 66, recently emailed the photo to her cousin, Olga Andalia Jenkins, a Columbus resident, after being separated for 50 years.
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer This is a photo of Rina Andalia Ramis, an epidemiologist in Cuba, when she was a little girl. Ramis, now 66, recently emailed the photo to her cousin, Olga Andalia Jenkins, a Columbus resident, after being separated for 50 years.

Keeping in touch is something easily taken for granted.

You pick up the phone, tap on a few numbers and voila! You're speaking with a loved one.

You can even communicate face-to-face via Face-Time and other technology, no matter how far the distance. And there's Facebook and Snapchat if you're more socially inclined.

But what if you wanted to communicate with someone cut off from the rest of the world?

For Olga Andalia Jenkins, chairwoman of the foreign language department and a Spanish teacher at Brookstone School, that wasn't just a hypothetical situation. She fled Cuba with her parents and older sister about 50 years ago. Her family lost contact with many relatives, including her cousin, Rina Andalia Ramis, because of the U.S. embargo.

Olga was just 4 years old when she left Cuba, and Rina was 10. Before separating, the two girls, along with Olga's older sister, played with dolls and enjoyed eating snacks on their grandmother's wooden wrap-around porch. Olga recalls devouring Cuban bread dipped in cafe con leche (a Spanish white coffee beverage) as they watched chickens from the back of the house.

"We lived in a coastal area in a sugar mill town called Central Preston, so there was always a nice sea breeze," she said.

But Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, and Olga's family soon fled the island by ferry. They disembarked on the shores of Key West and then took a Greyhound bus to Rochester, N.Y. The next year, they visited Cuba for a brief period and returned to the states. After that, the U.S. embargo made it difficult to keep in touch with relatives.

So imagine her surprise when she received an email and Facebook message from Rina last November, just a few days before Thanksgiving. In the email, Rina asked if she was the daughter of Raul and Nilda Andalia, to which the answer was yes.

Olga couldn't believe what she was reading and responded as quickly as possible. She also called her brother and sister to let them know she had reconnected with a Cuban relative.

Through correspondence, they learned that Rina, 66, is an epidemiol

ogist at the University of Havana. She was able to contact the family because of recent reforms that have opened up more of the country to the Internet. In 2014, President Barack Obama also restored U.S. diplomatic relations with the island nation, making it easier for relatives to communicate.

"She saw an obituary for my dad online," Olga explained. "It had my married name. She looked up my married name and up came Brookstone School, and so she emailed me on my work email."

The two cousins had their first phone conversation Tuesday night, and it was very emotional, Olga said. She also spoke to her Aunt Elvia, Rina's mother, who celebrates her 90th birthday today.

"It's the first time we talked in 50 years," Olga said of the 10-minute conversation. "But it was like I had just seen her yesterday."

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.

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