Editor’s Note: President Donald Trump’s now-suspended executive order limiting refugees in the U.S. prompted the following response from a community member who knows firsthand the plight of individuals looking for hope and freedom in America. Gabriela Imreh has previously written about her life in a Soviet bloc country, her “forbidden love” with an American, and her escape to the United States. Now the respected concert pianist, wife of New Jersey Capital Philharmonic conductor Daniel Spalding, and Trenton resident takes us beyond the headlines and into the heart of the matter.
It is Sunday, January 29, 2017. Images from American airports are flashing all over the TV networks: passionate protests, people who chose to go out and have their voices heard — rather than enjoy a quiet Sunday at home cooking dinner (as I am).
The images are both heartening and frightful: the generosity, idealism, and kindness of Americans protesting because we could very well stand on the edge of a scary abyss.
I can’t help but cry because the current stories of immigrants, green card holders, and asylum seekers — being shoved onto an airplane and sent back after fighting for months, even years, to get away from hellish situations — remind me I was once one of them.
I was born in Romania and grew up at the height of a despotic, autocratic regime.
My parents’ and grandparents’ lives were a string of tragedies defined by different tyrants: Hitler, Stalin, and Nicolae Ceausescu. Wars, ethnic hatred, communism, shortages of everything — it was a minefield of trappings we couldn’t escape and that ultimately defined us. Lives were shattered; people left fearful, numb.
‘I remember as vividly how, when we arrived in Vienna and I was staring down the three steep train steps thinking: my first step on free soil! It was overwhelming.’
My salvation was my transistor radio left on all night tuned to Radio Voice of America or Radio Free Europe: great music, jazz, little bits of news (bits we didn’t have access to because they were meticulously, maniacally censored by the communists). It was a distant but real world that brought hope along with dreams of a better place. And deep down I hoped “they” would come and do something.
As scary as my youth was, it wasn’t war-torn Bosnia, Aleppo, or Somalia. We lived in fear, but we didn’t have bombs dropped on us or savage militias raping and killing people around us. But fear is fear, and we feared the secret police coming into our homes and removing one of us with no given reason.
In the end I was one of the lucky ones. It took a little over a year and a lot of hard work from my husband’s family, who contacted American politicians to write letters on my behalf. I was put on the Helsinki human rights list and in early January, 1986, when Secretary of State George Schultz paid a visit to Ceausescu to negotiate a trade deal Ceausescu desperately needed, he had me on his short list. Eventually I was given the approval to marry, and later to leave.
From the American side I had interviews at the embassy in Bucharest, had to have medical clearance. I remember HIV and tuberculosis tests. They all felt intrusive, but I just went through the motions until I finally received my visa.
The list itself of (communist) approved things one could take along was a last attempt to control and cause distress. My suitcases were thoroughly and roughly searched, my handkerchiefs counted. My father was taken away at gun point because he didn’t know he wasn’t allowed to the border without a passport.
I remember as vividly how, when we arrived in Vienna and I was staring down the three steep train steps thinking: my first step on free soil! It was overwhelming.
Then came the long flight to Kennedy airport. I was confused, and my English was minimal, so I had to rely on Dan to get me through passport control. I wished I could take a shower, wash my hair. Instead I was pulled aside to a small room and was fingerprinted. I felt humiliated — like I was criminal. Again, I just went through the motions.
I was trying to absorb the fact that every single minute, every mile was taking me further away from everything I have known before. I was just half listening to Dan chatting with the taxi driver, telling him our story and that it was my first time in America. Then without warning the driver turned the car off the highway and announced he would take the long way through the city to give me a tour of New York. No extra charge! It was one of the most memorable things anyone has done for me.
‘We have experienced and lived in worlds devoid of freedom, where there were no rules, few or no rights, and some people had unlimited power over others and used it.’
Even at 2 a.m. the city was glowing, lit up like a Christmas tree — imposing, impressive, gorgeous. I remember wondering how they could leave all those lights on since in Romania nights were pitch black, people imprisoned by curfews.
It was my first of endless miraculous experiences, acts of kindness proving how generous, kind, and welcoming Americans were. What I don’t remember is anyone being judgmental, at the most people were curious and asked me (ask even now) “where are you from?”
Becoming an American citizen was one of the happiest days of my life. It happened in a crowded courthouse in Newark where I was surrounded by dozens of people who probably felt as elated as I did. We all left a whole life behind, families, friends, belongings. I couldn’t keep in touch with anyone but the closest family because the Securitate harassed them. Unlike others I had a loving husband to go through the process with, to guide and protect me, to lean on. Others had nothing, not even the two suitcases I was allowed to bring. They came alone, some as children who lost everyone and everything.
It is hard to explain why we immigrants feel so strongly about what is happening today in airports all around the country, but it matters so much to us because we had to fight to come here. We can’t take this for granted. We have experienced and lived in worlds devoid of freedom, where there were no rules, few or no rights, and some people had unlimited power over others and used it.
So maybe we react more strongly to the “abyss” that recent hours and days have darkly hinted toward. Maybe we are oversensitive, but we are products of societies where one horribly wrong move, one single decision wrecked generations and generations of honest, good, innocent people.
It can happen. We hope it won’t happen, not here, not now, and that may be why so many rallied and protested — instead of having a cozy quiet Sunday supper.
Gabriela Imreh’s “The Bride’s Memoir: A Forbidden Romance” appeared in U.S. 1 on February 11, 2015, and can be found at princetoninfo.com.