by Marina Tanase (December, 2008)
During the communist times Romanians who could, who dared, looked for ways to escape. There are as many stories as escape attempts. Each can impress upon readers the dangers those trapped in communist regimes experienced just wanting a way out and a chance for better life in another part of the world.
Here are three stories of escape. First a father’s adventure leaving Romania and his family during the communist period, second a young man in search of a better life and and income escaping right after the fall of the Communism, and third a young woman leaving Romania in 2006, two months before the country had joined the European Union. This last story is different. It’s my story of leaving Romania for college classes and to experience life in other country.
Alex swims the Danube
My aunt Ashlei’s family in Cluj was very poor, barely putting food on the table. One night, without telling anyone, due to the risks of Romanian security catching word of his plans, Ashlei’s father Alex left Romania by swimming across the Danube. This was in November 1982.
Alex had long listened to “Europa Libera” (Free Europe), a radio program with news and information forbidden in communist Romania. From the radio he learned about life and ideas outside the communist regime. Alex dreamt of escaping Romania for the better life his radio told of beyond the borders.
He did not know where along the border he might successfully cross by land. One needed to have connections to find guides for where to cross and when, but Alex didn’t have connections. Then one day, he heard a colleague describing how a relative had crossed the Danube on inflated tubes, and escaped to Yugoslavia. Alex thought this sounded easy. He was a good swimmer. He could do this.
The border was patrolled by security within a 30 km limit from the border, but Alex did not know this. He freely moved around within this 30 km zone, never fearing anyone. The security watched him but because he moved with such confidence, never trying to hide, they assumed he belonged there. It was only later that Alex learned he had been in so much danger.
Alex also attributes his successful crossing to luck. He hitched a ride from a dump truck driver within this 30 km border zone, and after they got to know each other and learned they both worked as drivers, the driver guessed that Alex intended to escape across the border. This 60-year-old Romanian offered advice without any expecting anything in return. He instructed Alex on where to hide close to the Danube and to wait for nightfall. He took Alex there and showed him the best place to enter the water. When they parted and Alex tried to give the man money, he refused and said: “Keep your money, you’re going to need it.”
He told Alex that many members of his own family had left Romania in similar ways, including his son and brother, but he thought that he was too old to escape himself. The road to freedom outside Romania held many dangers, but also some willing to help, and Alex considered himself lucky to have met this man.
The Danube is almost a kilometer wide (970 m) where Alex swam across. He swam in complete darkness, never being able to see the other shore. He simply tried to swim in the same direction until he reached land. He forgot to check his watch on the other shore in order to see how long it took him to swim across but he thinks he swam for between two to four hours, in pitch darkness with no sight of the shore until his hands touched land. At first when he tried to stand he found that his legs would not hold him….he was that exhausted. After a few minutes he recovered enough to make a run for it, as he saw a Romanian Security patrol boat searching the Yugoslav border with flash lights, (of course looking for him).
Once in Yugoslavia, he talked with a Serbian man who owned land close to the Romanian border and the man said he had seen hundreds of bodies of Romanians who tried to escape but were caught by the security and killed. Their bodies were never recovered by the Romanians, in fact the Romanian government denied that these were Romanians at all, (although they had killed them.)
At that time Yugoslav authorities would return some refugees (randomly). Alex was lucky to be let go and had to leave for Italy where he spent time in a refugee camp. From there he contacted his family to assure them that he was ok. He soon started to send packages back home. From there he was accepted to come to Canada where he got Landed Emigrant status. Later, he brought his family, a process which took two years.
Ashlei and her family were forced by the Romanian Communist regime to surrender their Romanian citizenship in order to depart for Canada. When they arrived in Canada they had to work hard and there was no way back to Romania.
I personally believe that this is the main difference between the old emigrants and the newer ones. The older generation didn’t have choices so they worked hard, embraced the new country and made a good living.
For them, there was no turning back! They had to make it in their adopted country no matter how difficult the first few years would prove to be.
More recent immigrants are constantly comparing their adopted land to their old country, and many are somehow never satisfied. Many have trouble adjusting to their new land, but before long they don’t feel at home back in the old country either!
Andu meets a head-hunter
The next story is of my uncle who has left Romania just after the fall of the communist regime. After the 89 “revolution” things changed quite fast in Bucharest, the capital. For the first time in his life my uncle Andu was allowed to enter embassies. He was working as an engineer at the same place my father was working, but getting paid very little.
He was always looking for opportunities to earn more and found an advertisement for working overseas. Prior to the revolution working overseas (Libya, Iraq…) was only for the lucky ones with connections to members of the communist party.
My uncle Andu met a Romanian head-hunter and basically within a few months he has got all the paperwork in place to leave for a job in Israel. The pay was significantly higher than anything in Romania. There was little security about the job, or labor agreement, but my uncle took the risk and everything went well. Andu saved a lot of money and sent much of it home to help the family.
About six months before leaving Romania, the Canadian embassy in Bucharest was receiving applications for emigrants and Andu signed up to see what will happen. While in Israel, his mother told him the Canadian embassy called to arrange an interview. He had to postpone this interview as he was out of the country, working in Israel. Andu came back to Romania nearly a year later but then left for a second contract. He came home as his mother was diagnosed with cancer, then had the embassy interview and left for Canada.
Looking back it was all an adventure, he says. “I took lots of risk but everything paid off in the end. In Israel it wasn’t easy but I knew why I was there (for economic reasons) which helped to remind me to save some money. The plan was to return to Romania with some money in my pockets. The work in Israel provided me with the money required to go to Canada and also it helped me leave enough money behind, for my family, for them to have a decent life.”
In Canada he went through some tough times, starting from nothing, when the economy was just coming out of a recession. My uncle received a master’s degree, he lost his mother, and during his first years money was extremely tight. Later he met his wife and things went better from there. They were both very poor but after they both graduated and got jobs, and life for them in Canada improved from there.
Marina visits Málaga
The last migration case is my personal experience. I left Romania for reasons very different from Alex and Andu in the stories above.
I can t forget that day: October 24 of 2006. This was the day when my sister and I decided to give the big step and go abroad for graduate studies. It was our personal decision because we wanted experience in a foreign country. We realized that would be difficult because we would be taking responsibility in our hands to manage first the many bureaucratic forms then organizing our life and education in Spain. But this was what really encouraged me to take this big step in my life.
I remember perfectly the day when we left. I was 24 years old. It was a rainy day. Our parents came with us to the airport. The flight departed at 10 in the morning, so we arrived at the airport at 8:00. We passed through all the custom formalities and then came the moment to say goodbye to our parents. They wished us good luck but I was afraid of the flight and couldn’t concentrate on what they were telling me.
Well, we passed the control and I wanted to take a last look at my parents but suddenly the airport architecture interfered. I couldn’t see anymore my parents. Now was starting the real adventure. In that moment I realized that now I would be managing myself in any kind of situation. My parents weren’t with me anymore to help when I needed.
We embarked on the plane and we took off. What a sensation!!! I felt so free. “Now we are on our own Cristina, do you realize?” I asked my sister. It was something new, but a little bit scary at the same time.
We arrived in Malaga at six pm. I remembered my first impressions…I felt lost in a country where nobody cares about me, where I don’t know anybody….It was only the two of us. We had all the information to get to the flat where we were to stay during the academic year and we got there at 8 o clock.
Wow…it was my first phrase when I got there. I really enjoyed the apartment and the two roommates. I felt like home. What a relief!!!
The next day we started our formalities to obtain our residence permit. I can’t forget our two first weeks. I was crying the whole day because of all the legal requirements. It was that moment I realized what the Spanish mentalities were about the Romanians. So I felt strange in a country where you know that people don’t like you. I felt rejected and this was my difficulty. Not so hard as swimming the Danube in the pitch dark night. But still hard, though after the first two weeks I became used to it.
The whole experience was just great and helped me mature. I realized that for everything one should have patience and fight for realizing the dream. I learnt to manage myself in a great many situations and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Now, as my uncle also said, looking back I had a lot of bad moments but also good ones and both help us grow. When we left, Romania had not yet joined European Union so everything in terms of formalities was more difficult.
Spain was a more developed country than the one we left. Two years passed since arriving for our adventure as students. Of course, this status provided comfort because the only thing we had to do was study, but still the bureaucratic barriers were substantial, and we had a lot of difficulties even as students.
After graduating the master, we had to make an internship. I started my internship in Decathlon, a French sport company, and after three months compulsory intern position they offered me a contract for an indefinite period. I was excited because it was a great opportunity to work in an international environment and realize that you get this job only because you are valued as a person.
But here new problems started. They didn’t know how to legally contract me. Romania joined the European Union in 2007 but we still need a work permit till 2009.
Spanish companies were not well informed regarding the employment procedures in the case of Romanians and Bulgarians.The ignorance of some people can ruin dreams in one day. When I received this job offer, I had an opportunity I didn’t have in Romania. The job offered the chance to make my own decisions and earn my own money.
That moment I realized that leaving for a life abroad has nothing to do with the fascinating tourist experience. As a tourist you like everything and are free from all the administrative formalities. But state bureaucracies that welcome tourists are suspicious of those wishing to work. Once one tries to earn a living in a country, regulatory formalities arise and procedures get worse. And all this time spent on paperwork is time not spent providing services, earning money, or enjoying life.
Patience is a virtue, they say, and is needed to get through this difficult process. Confronting these problems helps us learn to stand up for what we want. But it is complicated for immigrants who have left their countries for a better life or to earn income for their children. Most migration is toward employment and income opportunities, and the natural difficulties learning new languages, cultures, and skills are hard enough without the sad struggle with tough and often arbitrary bureaucracies.