Previously: After I started teaching English at a vocational college in Australia, I came to understand some of the struggles of my adult students. Many of them were migrants or had come to Australia as refugees. Their stories and the public furore in 2012 over boat arrivals compelled me to start writing this book, a collection of stories of people who have sought refuge in Australia since the Vietnam War. Last week we concluded Truc’s story from Vietnam, and this week we start Carmen’s story from Romania.
Carmen’s home is on a good-sized block, the rectangular lawn a collection of green plants that have been mowed to uniform height.
Carmen opens the front door and welcomes me, warning me not to come too near because she doesn’t want to pass me her cough. I give her a pot of three hyacinths in bud, the green nubs concealing the colour of the flowers to come and a brown paper bag of lemons from my tree.
‘Thank you,’ she laughs. ‘I have so many lemons on my tree I don’t know what to do with them.’
There is a low round table by the front door with a pot of pencils and an appointment notepad. Straight ahead, behind the kitchen bench, a single window frames a lone palm reaching up to a piercing blue sky. Carmen pours me a hot cup of coffee but she has tea, no milk, for her cough. The mid-morning light refracts through the transparent cup, giving the weak tea a ghostly hue.
We settle ourselves on the sofa in the lounge room and she begins to tell me her story.
Carmen’s grandfather had a farm in the rural town of Berchez in northwest Romania. On visits to the farm, the family ate freshly churned butter, cabbages from the garden and grapes picked off the vines.
When Carmen was only little, her aunt thought there would be many interesting sights in the paddock to amuse her niece on such a fine day. But young Carmen looked down and saw black ants marching towards the hem of her pretty white dress. She flinched at the black flies buzzing around her and cried out in fear, ‘Oh! The ants and the flies, the flies are all around me!’
After weekend visits and holidays, Carmen and her younger sister settled themselves on the backseat of the family car for the half-hour drive through steep and winding roads back to Baie-Mare but they knew that once they crossed the river, they were very near home.
Since her birth in 1964, Carmen had lived in a flat at Block 49, Strada Doctor Victor Babes, a beautiful tree-lined street situated between the mountains and the river. But this was communist Romania and there were no artistic flourishes reminiscent of the stately buildings of old Europe. Instead, a stairwell of exposed brick at one end connected several identical floors with recessed verandas and utilitarian windows.
The flat had been provided for Carmen’s family by the state-owned mining company where both her parents worked. Her father designed powerful machines that bore through the earth to extract copper and gold. Her mother produced technical drawings, the conduit between a designer’s imagination and the production floor.
It was unusual for people like Carmen’s parents to hold such a well-paying job because their loyalties were suspect. Several times a week, the family attended the Maranatha Pentecostal Church where hundreds of worshippers filled the wooden pews. Women in headscarves and plain dress sat apart from men in suits and ties. A sign on the front of the sturdy wooden pulpit bore the Romanian words ‘Isus Lumina Lumii’, ‘Jesus Light of the World’. Behind the pulpit was a large picture of a river, its waters blue, reflecting the colour of the sky.
It was nothing like the river that ran through Baie-Mare. Carmen never played by the river; none of the children did. They all knew that you could get very sick if you fell into the water. Mine tailings had turned the water the colour of weak brown tea. Nothing lived in the river. No fish. No plants. There was nothing in it but stones.
Winters in these mountainous regions near the Hungarian border were long, dark and harsh. Laundry hung to dry in the veranda would freeze into solid sheets and were taken indoors to thaw. Sometimes, Carmen’s father strung clotheslines indoors, which looked decidedly odd against the wallpaper, the carpet and the upright piano.
All this was cleared away, of course, for the triple birthday celebrations of Carmen’s mother, her sister and herself in November. The table would be beautifully presented – pretty tablecloth, the best plates, the finest cutlery. There would be presents – a box of chocolates, a pretty blue dress. The women in the family, all good cooks, could make a three course meal out of a little bit of meat.
In those days, the whisper of meat was enough to conjure queues, fifty metres long, people stomping in the snow to try to keep warm, hoping that the shop wouldn’t run out before their turn.
People returning from Hungary would fill their cars with little triangles of cheese, fizzy drinks, salami and white soap that smelled of fresh green apple. They would sell the goods for three to four times the retail price across the border. Carmen knew the family would feast well if they were fortunate enough to come across such people because money wasn’t a problem; her parents had good wages, but there was nothing to buy in the shops where weak yellow light cast depressing shadows on bare shelves and empty meat hooks.
Romania was exporting the bulk of her agriculture to pay for President Ceausescu’s ambitious building projects inspired by his 1971 visit to North Korea and China. He had walked beside Chairman Mao and basked in the reflected glory of cheering young people waving flags. As his economic policies plunged the country deeper into debt, his need for adulation increased.
So Carmen found herself walking with her schoolmates to mass rallies in the city where the appearance of the tiny figure of the president in a far off podium was the cue to begin chanting, ‘Long live the president who gives us a good life.’
After high school, Carmen enrolled in Mechanical Engineering at a technical college in Cluj-Napoca, about 150 km southeast from Baia Mare. During her first months there, she had enjoyed the picnics and parties, where she met other young people her age. It was her first time away from home, away from the rhythms and rituals of her parents’ faith. But when the novelty of this new way of life wore off, deeper questions rose to the surface: Is God real? What is life about? Does God play any part in it?
After all, it was on account of God that various paths had been closed off to her. She was interested in psychology, had read Kant in school, but only communist party members could become psychologists or teachers or any profession that had anything to do with ideology. As a Christian, her options were limited.
Then in 1986, when she was in her third year of studies, in a singular moment of startling clarity, she realized that she was not interested in machines. She had enrolled in the course because of her admiration for her father, his cleverness, and the useful machines he designed.
A continuing and deep dissatisfaction with her friends, her course, and her country led her to conclude that Romania had no future and she had no future in Romania. Her future lay in God, whom she was called to serve, with whom she made peace.
One day, the wholly unexpected idea of escape came to Carmen. No one in her family had ever attempted anything so dangerous. She told no one because the very thought of escape raised very many difficult questions: What if she were caught? What if she lost her place at the university? Was thrown in prison? Raped?
Whenever these questions surfaced unexpectedly and threatened to overwhelm her, she knelt in prayer, a raw cry from her heart, ‘God, you really need to help me. I surrender all to you. I am asking you to take charge of my life and show me the way.’ The idea of escape incubated in Carmen’s mind for six months.
When God answered her prayer, it was in form of a simple thought, more a suggestion than a reply. The first step was to get a passport. Of course. Authorities would not suspect that a university student such as herself, with a bright future, would want to escape.
During her next visit home, Carmen asked her mother, ‘Can I visit our family friends in Hungary during my summer break?’ Travel to other communist states was permitted, so long as one had the necessary visa and passport. Carmen’s mother was Hungarian, and Carmen spoke Hungarian. It was a perfectly reasonable request and Carmen received her newly issued passport on her subsequent visit home in April 1987.
‘Well, that’s good,’ she thought, ‘that’s the first thing. I’ve got a passport to go to Hungary. That was easy.’ But she was completely taken aback when she walked passed her next-door neighbour, Bill, and he asked her, ‘Aren’t you going to buy a ticket to Vienna?’
‘Who told you?’ asked Carmen.
‘Come over to my place,’ said Bill.
Later, in his flat, with his wife Flora, Bill said to Carmen, ‘Look, God is telling me that your plans are good plans. God is going to help you and is going to give you a ministry in Australia. God is going to give you instructions at the right time. God is going to look after all the little details.’
Taking this as divine confirmation, Carmen decided to return to university for one month to complete her third year exams before attempting to escape. As she rode the bus back to university, she admired cherry trees by the wayside, the trees covered in tiny pink blooms. Winter had passed. Spring was here.
This is the serial online release of ‘Refuge’ by May-Kuan Lim. The next episode, Refuge #10 Polaroid Colour, will be published next Friday, 3 May. Subscribe for links to new instalments delivered to your inbox.