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Mr. Alan Gross captivated the CHC community speaking about the challenges of his imprisonment

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Extending the Distinguished Speaker Series, humanitarian and former Cuban prisoner Alan Gross visited Cape Henry Collegiate on Wednesday, February 24th to share his message. Addressing the cruelty of his time in prison along with the wonder he experienced upon release, Alan Gross’ message was undeniably one of hope and perseverance.

Prior to his imprisonment, Mr. Gross was a humanitarian worker traveling the world. In his work, he provided relief to numerous countries across the globe. That work was cut short when Mr. Gross traveled with a team to Cuba to set up internet routers for citizens. In December of 2009, he was arrested by Cuban federal forces at the Havana airport. For the next five years, Mr. Gross spent his every waking hour in a Cuban prison. Those years were some of the most physically and emotionally challenging times of his life.

“It wasn’t a good experience,” Mr. Gross recalled before he joked. “I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone.”

Walking about ten paces across the stage, Mr. Gross outlined the size of his cell. A silence grew across the auditorium as the reality of his meager living became understood by the audience. Pushing forward with his account, Mr. Gross retold the difficulties of his first year imprisoned.

“I had barely twenty minutes of sun the first year,” he recounted. “I had interrogations daily. They threatened to hang me, and extract my fingernails.”

Though threats were made, Mr. Gross counted himself lucky that none came to pass.

While still recounting the interrogations, Mr. Gross laughed about the cultural and language barriers present. He told one story of how he learned the Cuban meaning for waving your hand over your head: similar to giving the middle finger in our country. In essence, he gave Cuban federal interrogators the middle finger without even realizing it. This humorous gesture became a common sight during Mr. Gross’ speech as he attempted to lighten the mood on an altogether somber subject.

In spite of these difficulties, Mr. Gross’ conditions gradually improved over time. He recalled the joy he felt with the introduction of a computer to his cell. Of course, it was not connected to the internet, but it was a start. Additions such as the computer and telephone privileges aided in motivating Mr. Gross through his struggles.

“It was important for me to know I wasn’t forgotten,” he stated. “I was reminded how important family and community are.”

Mr. Gross attributed much of his hope to the knowledge that his friends and family were thinking about him. The phone calls and emails that he received motivated him to continue fighting through his incarceration.

“Finding something funny to laugh at everyday,” he commented. “That was crucial.”

Mr. Gross’ easygoing, lighthearted nature blended well with this philosophy. Throughout his speech, he constantly laughed at himself and at anything seemingly humorous.

“There are a lot of things I used to take for granted that I don’t anymore,” he recalled. “That’s why I’m so happy.”

Climaxing with his story, Mr. Gross retold his release from prison and his return home on the Air Force One Alternative. He recounted the conversation he had with president Obama. Laughing, he went on to talk about the first nutritious meal he had after years of malnutrition in Cuba.

Despite the harsh conditions he faced, Mr. Gross remains close to Cuba.

“The Cuban people have my heat, I would return to Cuba in a heartbeat,” he adamantly declared. “Until they respect their own sovereignty, and their own people, there will be human rights issues.”

The adoration of the Cuban people was plainly displayed in Mr. Gross’ demeanor and words.

As the story of his Cuban imprisonment came to a close, Mr. Gross reflected back on his journey and recounted the important things he learned in his time.

“If your access to information is blocked, your brain becomes deficient,” he stated.

And as he closed his speech, Mr. Gross implored the importance of community to the student audience.

“I was involved in community activity for many years,” he finished. “I’ve realized that these activities were akin to paying premiums on insurance I didn’t even know I had. Be involved. My plea to you is to be involved in your community.”

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