(Photo: Barbara Pendergrass)

LITTLE GASPARILLA ISLAND, Fla. – The Florida barrier island known as Little Gasparilla was the place they found freedom, as 27 Cuban refugees stepped safely on the shore at approximately 5:30 a.m. Eastern today.

The group consisted of men, four children and four or five women – one of them pregnant with a female toddler in tow. One was a doctor, one a dentist, one a hairstylist – and all were ecstatic. They said they came to escape the dire political environment that kept them prisoner.

They arrived by motorboat in the darkness of the early morning underneath a starry sky and were dropped on the shore of this island of about seven miles, which is not connected to the mainland. Many years ago, through storms and shifting sand, the island became connected to two smaller islands – Don Pedro (a Florida state park) and Knight Island, home of the Palm Island Resort.

At press time, it was unclear who organized the effective flight.

The boaters appeared to believe they were on the mainland when they were let off on the south end of the island. They began walking as a unified group down the beach, covering over a mile, and at some point turned toward the interior of the island. The refugees continued until they ran into Lowell McElroy, who was headed home from his dock on the bay at approximately 6:50 a.m.

(Photo: Gene Surdam)

“One of them stepped forward and said something in Spanish. I told them they have to speak in English if they want to talk to me,” McElroy said. “Another stepped forward and asked me in broken English to call the authorities. They were all very friendly.”

McElroy called the local sheriff who arrived via boat in about an hour. Other police sped down the beach via ATV from the state park to investigate the landing point.

(Photo: Barbara Pendergrass)

As the Cubans waited for the officials to arrive for processing, word of their presence spread through this island of mostly private vacation homes. Islanders came to Lowell’s house with clothes, food and water. The joyful demeanor of the Cubans was infectious, with homeowners and vacationers alike laughing and becoming instant friends.

David Tagle, an 18-year-old graduate of Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., soon to be a freshman at Brown University, is fluent in Spanish and became the interpreter for the group. An instant bond formed as the refugees chatted excitedly with Tagle.

“I asked them why they came and it was clear they are here seeking freedom. Most of them seemed to have family in the United States and borrowed cell phones to call family members in Miami and Cape Coral,” said Tagle. “‘The political situation is not very good,’ one of them told me.”

According to U.S. law, Cuban refugees who manage to reach dry land in the United States are allowed to remain in the country, while those intercepted at sea are sent back.

By 9:12 a.m., the last of them were escorted off the island via various government boats, including Lee County, Charlotte County, Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife state boats. As they left the docks the islanders waved goodbye. One local official who remained behind said “Good luck.”

Luck, it seems, is already on their side.

(Photo: Gene Surdam)

(Photo: Gene Surdam)

(Photo: Gene Surdam)

(Photo: Gene Surdam)

More to come …

Rebecca Hagelin, a WND columnist and vice president of the Heritage Foundation, was vacationing on Little Gasparilla Island this morning and filed the story after spending time with the refugees.

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