By Jenna Goff
A sculpture of a door hangs in Miriam Saul’s Sandy Springs home. Painted vividly in blues and reds, the door was a gift from Temple Sinai to Saul for their trip to Cuba that she organized. Now, the door stands out among Saul’s extensive collection of Cuban art.
“I love it because it reminds me of the doors that Cuba has opened for me,” she said.
Saul is a Cuban-American who left Cuba during that country’s revolution, when she was 11. After an eight month separation from her parents, her family moved into a small apartment in Atlanta. “I vividly remember my father saying, ‘We’re not looking backward, we’re going forward,’” she said.
That is exactly what Saul did. For almost 40 years, she severed all relations she had with Cuba. “I had no memories of my life there,” she said. “I didn’t identify.”
It wasn’t until she turned 50 that she started thinking about her home country. So in 2000, she organized a trip to go back.
“I started having little flashes of memory there,” she said. “And when I left, I started crying at the airport and didn’t stop. It was the start of a breakdown or a healing.”
It was also the beginning of countless trips to Cuba. But what started out as a personal journey quickly grew larger. “I discovered a very needy Jewish community in Cuba,” said Saul.
In 2002, she began a community project with the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA). The International Community Builders – Project Cuba gathered a large amount of donations such as clothing, toys and medicine to bring to Cuba.
“You can’t get a lot of basic supplies there and you can’t ship things in,” said Saul. “For six years, we carried supplies in. We really saw a change.”
She founded Friends of Jewish Cuba in 2006 with the same goal of helping the Cuban Jewish community. But she soon yearned to introduce others to the beauty of her home. “You can only travel for humanitarian, religious or people-to-people reasons. You have to qualify under OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] rules,” she said. “Others had the licensing, I had the following.”
So along with her friend Marla Whitesman, Saul founded Other Cuban Journeys. The two were able to get a People-to-People License from OFAC that allows more varied groups to travel to Cuba.
“Our trips focus on interactions with the plain Cuban,” Saul said. “Cubans are such remarkable people, and we want to get an insight into their lives.”
The interactions with Cubans on her trips range from talking to workers at a cigar factory to prominent artists. They touch on politics, economics, art, music, religion and more. “Every stop we make has an element of learning,” said Saul. “We learn from them, and they learn from us. Travelers say it’s the most complete trip they’ve ever taken.”
Susanne Katz, a local curator, photographer and writer, has taken a number of trips with Saul. She agrees that the journey is quite something.
“They are worthwhile trips,” she said. “We bring all this aid, and just seeing where that goes and who it serves is phenomenal. But the blend of history and culture that you get is what keeps me coming back. It’s not at all what you’d expect.”
But even after affecting lives like Katz’s and the Cuban community, Saul still considers her trips to be personal.
“I’ve done things for people, but they have done things for me,” she said. “I am healed now.”