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Dentist pens children's book about family's immigration — and separation

Oyster Bay resident Sam Morhaim, a dental surgeon,

Oyster Bay resident Sam Morhaim, a dental surgeon, holds a copy of his self-published children's picture book -- "Where Are All My Toys?" -- about his family's experience emigrating from Cuba. The book focuses on the experience of his older brother, who lost all his toys upon arrival in the United States, only to have his father taken into federal custody. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Dr. Sam Morhaim has been telling his family’s immigration story for years to a captive audience — the people sitting in the dentist chairs at his Great Neck periodontal practice.

“Everyone’s always interested in the story,” Morhaim, 55, of Oyster Bay, said of his office anecdotes about his parents’ flight from Cuba in 1962 and arrival in Miami “with nothing in their pockets.”

Next month, that oral history will transfer to print when Morhaim publishes his first book, “Where Are All My Toys?” (Mascot Books). Illustrated with colorful drawings by Walter Policelli, Morhaim’s children’s book will be sold for $14.95 by Amazon and other online booksellers.

“It took me over a year to write,” Morhaim said. “But one day I just sat in a Starbucks and started writing on my phone, and it sort of flowed off my tongue.”

The story’s hero is Jimmy Rodriguez, who receives a pile of presents, including a beloved battery-operated tin Piggy Cook toy, for his fifth birthday party at home in Havana, Cuba. The next day, for reasons Jimmy doesn’t understand, he’s whisked off to the United States by parents fleeing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s increasingly repressive regime.

In the course of the story, the toys of the title are confiscated by Cuban police (and never returned). Jimmy’s father, Julio Rodriguez, is taken into federal custody for months in the United States, and Jimmy and his mother are left to fend for themselves in the strange, new land.

Jarring transition

Jimmy and his mother, Victoria Morhaim Rodriguez, wander the streets of Miami, struggle to communicate in their native Spanish, and try root beer for the first time. They don’t like it, but they are so thirsty they drink it anyway.

“After awhile he [Jimmy] didn’t care about his toys. He was worried about his father being taken, and that’s the point of the story,” Morhaim said.

Family separations? Seemingly unfeeling bureaucrats? Governments apparently hostile to immigration? If the story seems to have echoes today, it’s no coincidence. Morhaim said that current events influenced his decision to publish his story now.

“I wanted to tell this story for a long time because it’s about a child having to go through such a torturous situation,” Morhaim said. “And with all the immigration issues that we’re facing, it just seems even more poignant to tell it now.”

The family separation parallels in Morhaim’s book intrigued Lauren Magnussen, a production editor at Mascot Books in Herndon, Virginia, who prepared Morhaim’s book for print. Magnussen said she was “really drawn” to Morhaim’s story because of what she called “our current political environment, but also because it is a universal family story.”

Magnussen said that the book is intended for readers age 5 and older. “He [Morhaim] takes a really complicated subject, which is Castro’s Cuba, and makes it really easy to understand” and “easy for children to digest,” Magnussen said.

“The idea is for parents to read the book to the children who are between 5 and 8, or even older, and have discussions and open dialogue concerning immigration,” Morhaim said.

The story even has a happy ending. [Spoiler alert.] “In the last part of the story,” Morhaim said, “I’m born.”

Morhaim’s older brother, who answers to Jaime and the English equivalent, Jimmy, the real-life inspiration for the character of Jimmy Rodriguez, said, “I think it’s a good story. It really gets the point across as to what happened.”

“Those toys [taken by Cuban airport authorities] were all my Christmas presents,” Jaime, 63, a retired dermatologist, said by telephone from his home in Parkland, Florida. Although the memories have faded over time, he still remembers the Cuban airport police also taking his flashlight, a toy accordion, a toy saxophone and little bongo drums. They also confiscated his father’s diamond tie clip and a cashmere coat Jaime’s parents had bought to help him weather the cold north.

Settling in Brooklyn

Jaime said his brother’s story sticks mostly to the facts, although some poetic license is taken. The gifts seized by Cuban authorities were actually given to Jaime not on his birthday, but on “El Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos” (or Three Kings’ Day), a celebration that coincides with the last day of Christmas. Jamie said that although his family is Jewish, they celebrated the Christian holiday during their time in Cuba.

“I lost this, and lost that, and Dad wasn’t there,” Jaime said. “It had to have affected psychologically the way I think and look at the world.”

After a few months, his father was released from U.S. custody. The family moved to Canarsie, Brooklyn, later in 1962. Sam was born there in 1964.

For years, Sam recalls, his brother, Jaime, hid his toys under his bed, fearful the police would come to take them away. Sam said that his mother tried to reverse the psychological damage by telling Jaime, ‘you don’t have to worry because it’s not like Cuba here in New York.’”

Their father, who had been an architect in Cuba, eventually found work at a city architectural firm. He urged his sons to become professionals after they graduated from Canarsie High School in Brooklyn. Jaime graduated from Columbia University’s medical school, and Sam, who earned a degree in dental science from Stony Brook Medicine, has been a practicing periodontist since 1993. Despite the eased travel restrictions, he’s never visited Cuba, nor has any member of his family returned.

Their father died of pancreatic cancer in 1983. Sam said he plans to donate proceeds from his children’s book to pancreatic cancer research in his father’s memory.

His mother, 90, is a retired schoolteacher living in Val Harbor, Florida. She translated “Where Are All My Toys?” into Spanish.

For Sam Morhaim, writing his family’s story has been a cathartic experience. “I’ve had all these feelings bottled up inside,” he said. “I realized that my life could have been so drastically different if I would have been living in Cuba.” Instead, he wants to turn his rich childhood experiences in Brooklyn into a sequel to his children’s book.

Said Sam Morhaim: “One of the titles I’m thinking of is, ‘A Cuban Jew Grows in Brooklyn’.”

Healing writing, healing reading

“The teacher understood how hard it was for me and my family to leave our home in Cuba, so she allowed me to draw during class to help me adjust to all the changes in my life. I would draw pictures of the beaches in Cuba, my family, my toys, and even my new home in Brooklyn. My teacher thought they were really good, so she hung them up in the classroom.

"I missed my home in Cuba, my friends, and all my toys, but I was quickly getting used to my new life in Brooklyn.”

So says “Where Are All My Toys?” narrator Jimmy Rodgriguez, sharing the kind of thoughts that can be helpful for both the storyteller and young readers who’ve been through similar traumatic events.

“Anybody who has a lived experience from another country and comes to the United States has a very important narrative not only to tell but to keep as part of their own identity,” said Deborah Serani, Adelphi University professor of psychology. Studies show that writing fiction about a trauma you’ve been through is “healing and restorative” because “you make better sense of it,” Serani said.

Reading a story like Morhaim’s can help today’s immigrant children open up about their own hurtful past. “It’s curative to talk about and share your life story,” said Serani, who in April is publishing “Sometimes When I’m Sad” (Free Spirit), a picture book about a little boy who learns how to deal with sadness and disappointment.

“When personal narratives are anchored in someone’s actual life, they allow the reader to go beyond the facts to make strong emotional connections to what they read,” said Michele Marx, director of Hofstra University’s Reading/Writing Learning Clinic. The emotional connection can help “create a space for children to tell their own stories.”

— Jim Merritt

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