So much of what we’ve heard about refugees over the past month has been marred with bigotry, hate and demagoguery. Politicians and public figures of all stripes are using the politics of fear to garner media attention and stoke their own ambitions. And among those of us fighting for a humane response to the refugee crisis in the West, we see images of people on boats, crowds sleeping in train stations and group them together as nameless, faceless victims.
No doubt, decades of economic hardship, strife, hunger and violence, stoked by Western military involvement and home-grown extremism have displaced millions across the Middle East and North Africa. The sheer violence of situations that force people to risk boarding rickety boats or walking hundreds of miles with no food or shelter is incomprehensible.
By generalizing refugees, though, we erase the deeply personal, often complicated reasons why people leave their home countries and obscure the real stories of real people trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. So I’d like to tell a different kind of refugee story — one that happened in the recent past, and in fundamental ways, has defined who I am.
Meet my mom, Corina Aroneanu, née Albescu. She’s 61 now, and greying a bit, but back in 1954, when she was born at a Bucharest hospital, she had bright orange-red hair. In the weeks before she was born, it snowed so much that my grandfather had to dig a tunnel from the front door of their house to the street, and melt the snow in the bathtub to make sure that my pregnant grandma could get around safely.
The years after World War II in Romania were hopeful, if more unsettling than the preceding decade. For Romanian Jews, some of whom became party members, Communism seemed like a fresh start after millions of their relatives were killed in concentration camps, in town squares and at mass gravesites across the countryside. Despite crushingly small dilapidated housing and occasional food shortages, my mom’s first years of life were marked by a focus on schoolwork, joyful hiking trips to the Carpathian mountains, trips to open-air markets for food and visits with cousins, uncles and aunts who were scattered around the country.
In 1965, the increasingly repressive Communist government gave way to the overtly authoritarian dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. State surveillance tightened, and economic conditions worsened. My mom’s family couldn’t always find food or supplies at the market, and even ambitious, smart workers could barely make enough to stay afloat. Although the Communist government was statutorily atheist, and there was no sanctioned Jewish education, there was a societally-enforced glass ceiling for Jews. My grandparents, though highly industrious and intelligent, were routinely passed up for job promotions, housing improvements and other opportunities. Because my grandmother’s uncle had been a leading Social Democrat during the years of the war, they were under even more scrutiny — nobody in the family could leave the country, even for a conference or short trip. Twenty years after the Russian army captured Romania from the Nazis, anti-semitism was rampant.
My mom’s family took pains not to complain publicly, because Ceausescu’s network of paid informants was vigilant, and would add demerits to the files they kept on each family.
“You didn’t want a question mark next to your name — you never knew how it would affect you in the future.”
Privately, over dinner tables, and in hushed tones, Jewish Romanians began thinking seriously about leaving the country they grew up in and loved. Some, still enthralled with the Zionist dream, reached out to relatives and friends in Israel, while others tried to read meaning into heavily censored letters from acquaintances in the United States. As food shortages became more common and the glass ceiling bore down, young people felt more trapped than ever. Nearly every family had the same question about leaving the country: “What was better — the devil you know, or the devil you don’t?”
And all of a sudden, as if the universe had been listening, an opening appeared. In an effort to gain Most Favored Nation Status from the United States and open up trade with the West, Ceausescu made some concessions, one of which was to let select Jews leave the country and emigrate to Israel. In the late 1960s, Romanian Jews started trickling out through Europe into the United States and Israel, gaining entry as refugees seeking asylum or via relatives who could sponsor their immigration visas. Over the next decade, as Most Favored Nation Status came closer into reach, this trickle would widen into a steady stream and then into a mass exodus.
In 1974, as my mom entered her second year studying computer science at the University of Bucharest, an older cousin who had emigrated to New York a few years earlier, returned for a visit. She told the family about the opportunities for personal and professional advancement in the U.S., and called out my mom’s family for the years of idle talk of leaving, without taking action. That visit was pivotal. For years the family had talked about leaving together as a unit, but from that moment on my mom decided that once she finished her degree and worked for a couple of years, she would leave independently, if it came to that.
When she graduated University in 1977 and entered the workforce as a programming intern, the glass ceiling became even more clear. Being Jewish and not being a Communist Party member meant that she could advance one or two rungs above the entry-level position she had, but not beyond that. Tens of thousands of young people felt the lack of opportunity, and as Ceausescu’s administration raised exit visa quotas, people all around her began to leave the country. Some left with legitimate papers, waiting until the last minute to tell their families, friends and colleagues for fear the visas would be revoked. Some went abroad for conferences or trips, and never came back, applying for asylum, like my mom’s best childhood friend who fell out of touch for a year after defecting on an academic trip to London. Others, with no status or money to make a trip abroad, smuggled themselves across borders into neighboring countries, swimming rivers or stowing away in trucks and ships.
An effort begun before WWII led by a British philanthropist raised money from wealthy Western Jews to pay the Communist governments of the Eastern Bloc for each Jewish exit visa to Israel, starting at $2500 a head for “run of the mill” migrants, and paying much more for important academic, cultural and party figures. Over the course of a few decades, wealthy western Jews literally bought freedom for thousands of Romanian Jewish refugees, including my mom.
As Ceausescu’s regime slid into kleptocracy, cultural exchange with the West diminished and economic conditions worsened. It became clear that my mom couldn’t afford an apartment of her own, bus fare and food, and that she would have to continue to live with her parents indefinitely. My mom decided that she wouldn’t wait for her parents to leave together — she would apply for an exit visa on her own.
Among Jewish refugees from Romania, personal heartbreak and family dramas unfolded daily under the backdrop of police surveillance, economic hardship and friends, family and colleagues leaving the country on a moment’s notice.
In the fall of 1979, my mom applied for the necessary papers to leave Romania, unsure of whether she would be allowed to go, if or when the visas would come through. She told nobody about the plans but her parents. Each day, she would walk through the open-air market on her way to work, buying fruits, vegetables and other supplies because the family never knew when food shortages would hit. At work, she told nobody of her plans. Having never been outside of Romania before, her imagination led her down cul-de-sacs of the many possible ways her plan could be foiled by informants or the authorities.
Finally, in late May, 1980, she received a passport and an exit visa valid for one month, and was immediately fired from her job. In the next four weeks, she would have to apply for transit visas, buy plane tickets and prepare to leave the country in which she had lived for 26 years, all without alerting the local authorities or calling attention to herself or the family. A cousin in New York — the same one who had visited a few years earlier — bought her a plane ticket to Israel through Geneva via Swissair, which at the time was known to surreptitiously arrange refugee travel. However, when my grandmother went to the Swiss embassy to get my mom a transit visa (my mom couldn’t go there herself, in case somebody was following her), the request was denied.
After conferring with a few other visa-seekers at the Swiss embassy, my grandmother went to the Italian embassy a few days later, and submitted the paperwork for an entry visa. For weeks my mom was in limbo, with no job, no entry visa and exit papers that would expire in less than 30 days. To assuage her anxiety she took a 3-day solo trip to the mountain town of Predeal, where she checked into a hotel alone for the first time in her life, and practiced being on her own, interacting with the hotel manager and restaurateurs, in anticipation of what it would be like when she landed in the US.
Finally, just three days before her exit visa was set to expire, she got the Italian transit visa, secured a new plane ticket to Rome, and began packing up her life into one 40-pound bag. Relieved, but afraid to attract attention, she stayed at home for the three days before boarding the flight, carefully packing a lined raincoat, a Mongolian wool blanket, bedding, clothing and a skirt suit for job interviews.
On the morning of June 26, 1980, as if in a dream, she and her parents boarded the airport bus in Bucharest, stopping on the way to meet her cousins and tearfully tell them that she wouldn’t be coming back. Once at the airport, she hugged her parents and her old life goodbye, and went through customs, bribing the agent so he wouldn’t confiscate any of her valuable items like the blanket.
Equally elated and terrified, flying across borders towards the unknown, she felt the weight of the past release, and saw the opportunity of the future unfolding beneath her.
She landed in Rome and was met by friends of her uncle, a Romanian Jewish couple who had settled in Italy and worked as doctors. As an Eastern European migrant, she would have ended up in a makeshift refugee camp in the airport town of Ostia, were it not for the generous couple offering her a couch in their waiting room. Each morning for the next two months, she would get up before 8am, clean up her belongings, hide the luggage, and walk the streets of Rome, enamored with the bricolage of ancient ruins and western conveniences. At nightfall, she would make her way back to the Doctor’s office to sleep on the waiting room bench.
Her first week in Rome was marked by visits to a number of offices to try to secure entry into the U.S. Unfamiliar with the process, she set up an appointment with the International Rescue Committee, who led her through the steps of applying for political asylum and refugee status at the U.S. Embassy. She handed them her expired passport and visa, and went through a battery of tests including dozens of pages of questionnaires, a multi-hour interview at the embassy, extensive questioning about her involvement with the Communist Party, a medical examination, x-rays and more. She received a signed affidavit from her relative in New York, which she hoped would help ensure a good outcome.
For nearly two months she had no passport, no entry or exit visa, and no citizenship — she couldn’t go back to where she came from or forward to where she wanted to go. To those of us who are born and live in the same country, the idea of statelessness is foreign — what happens to you when you have no place, no country? For refugees, it’s part of the deal.
Finally, after weeks of waiting, she heard back from IRC that the passport and visa were ready, and that she had been approved to enter the United States as a refugee seeking asylum. In the early morning of August 29, 1980, she boarded a bus at the IRC office and went to the airport, and waited all day to go through immigration, until she and hundreds of other refugees from Eastern Europe — Russians, Romanians, shtetl Jews, intellectuals, families, all with work permits and REFUGEE stamped in their passports — boarded a chartered 747 headed towards New York’s Kennedy Airport. A whole fuselage packed with tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The plane landed in Queens a few hours late, owing to a midnight refueling stop in Scotland, but three of my mom’s relatives were there, waiting to welcome her to her new home. Walking out to the parking lot, one of her relatives hopped on the hood of his car and with a little bit of immigrant swagger said half-jokingly, “Once you write your resume, bring it to me and I’ll get you a job!” With only $100 to her name, and a couch to sleep on in her cousin’s Long Island home, she spent the next few weeks practicing her English — which was already quite good from years of study — and applying for jobs in Manhattan, hoping to be financially independent as quickly as possible.
Each day she would put on her skirt suit, brave the saturating heat and humidity of downtown, and trek from office to office for interviews, stopping at the Conran building or 1 Penn Plaza — bastions of Western capitalism — to cool down and buy sandwiches from the dizzying array of automat vending machines for lunch. Once she finally mustered the courage and sent her resume to her cousin, it was a done deal. She got a computer programmer job at ABC, one which she would keep for the next decade, into the first years of my childhood. In 1981, just a few months before her parents migrated to the U.S., she was granted a green card, leaving the REFUGEE visa behind forever, and entering the slipstream of the American Immigrant Dream.
Despite the difficulty of leaving the country she grew up in, my mom had a lot of lucky breaks along the way. A whole network of friends, relatives, and organizations helped her make the journey, she knew English, had a marketable profession, and despite her accent and religion, could more or less integrate into white American culture. After just a few years of living in the United States, she had a career, married my dad (another Romanian immigrant) and gave birth to two American kids.
Her refugee story is personal, complex and much of what happened was out of her control. As a white European fleeing economic hardship under an authoritarian regime, her story is fundamentally different than many refugees today, some of whom flee threats of physical violence, only to face racial or religious discrimination and violence in the West.
When we generalize refugee stories, though, when we leave behind the personal experiences of refugees, we make it easier for the bigots and demagogues to build a politics of division.
We lose understanding the deeply human experience of leaving your home with the hope of finding something better. My hope is by telling my mom’s story, people might see a little bit of their own in hers, and just maybe, see a little bit of themselves in today’s refugees.