I turned 26 this year. To some, it’s just another 365 days that have passed. It’s another reminder you’re closer to 30, or that your 10-year high school reunion is just around the corner. While these thoughts danced in my head on a sunny morning in June, this year symbolized something much more – a never ending gratitude I owe my parents, for giving me a future they never had.
You see, my mom and dad were this exact age during the time of the 1989 Romanian Revolution. Having been oppressed their whole lives by a vicious dictator, the pair decided to stand in solidarity against the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu on December 21, 1989. This was a ruler who failed to pass elementary school, but was granted the means to live like a king. While people starved due to food shortages, he would destroy entire neighbourhoods and erect megalomaniac projects meant to establish his “legacy.” It was a time when abortions and contraception were banned to fuel a dream to rule a nation of 30 million, forcing orphanages to maximum capacity. Even worse, bribing was rampant in all sectors of society and offering some hush money when in need of medical assistance would sometimes be the difference between life and death.
That bloody December day, my parents took to the streets with the masses in an effort to gain freedoms they never had. Despite the water jets, tear gas and live ammunition used by the military to quash the protesters, they were lucky enough to escape with only a few scratches and bruises. Had they not returned home at 10 p.m. as per the martial law curfew, they would have been killed, as hundreds others were that night. Luckily, victory came soon after.
You might be asking, ‘Why did they flee then?’
Unfortunately, the “new” party that claimed power (the National Salvation Front) was much of the same (the leader was Ceaușescu’s former right-hand man), determined to cling to the reins and defend the privileges of the communist oligarchy. That being said, my dad wrote weekly editorials for the country’s biggest opposition daily, arguing for a transition to a truly democratic government. The powers-to-be sent him veiled and also not-so-subtle messages, urging him to cease and desist his public discontent. Anyone who knows him knows that any threats or warnings wouldn’t deter him from voicing his opinion.
One day as he was driving to visit my grandparents, going through a green light, he was hit at full speed by a car coming from the right, in downtown Bucharest, right in front of the cops. Normally at that time, going through a red and hitting someone would have meant time behind bars. After the suspect whispered to the officers he worked for the authorities (presumably sent out to shake things up), he was released immediately, before my dad even finished giving his statement. The message was loud and clear: the system was still corrupt and its leaders weren’t going to surrender power just because the people had asked. It was at that point that dad asked himself, “What really matters to me?” Family and freedom were the answers. He knew that by leaving, their social status (both were engineers) would be lost. But by then, he was old enough to accept that no one gets everything they want in life.
The story gets worse before it gets better. Because they didn’t want to expose me to the perils of such a risky undertaking as defecting into the great unknown (I was 2.5 years old at the time), I was left behind for two years while they established themselves in Canada and managed to sponsor me. A year after landing in Toronto with only two suitcases in hand, their refugee status hearing was finally underway. The judge tearfully said “Welcome to Canada” after listening to nearly eight hours of evidence. Unfortunately, the Canadian government provided limited assistance after they had refugee status. My parents left the hearing happy to be accepted in their new home – but from any vantage point that counts, on their own.
Having me join them in Canada and also welcoming my baby brother into the world meant once again having to make some tough life choices. Providing for our little family of four while proudly not using the welfare system, meant not going back to a Canadian school and upgrading their Romanian degrees. Their choices were limited by the lack of societal support for someone in their position and by the economic depression of the early ‘90s. In the end, they got “buried” in bartending and serving jobs, something well below their qualifications.
While they both have worked their way up the ladder in the service industry, it brings me to tears when I think about what they were robbed of. It makes me angry that at the age of 53, my mom has to work two jobs to make the equivalent of a decent living wage. I can barely get through a 12-hour day, yet she pulls those six days a week. My poor dad, who is one of the smartest people I know with his sponge-like mind, has had to deal for over 20 years with rotten customers, who see him as some guy with a heavy accent working in a restaurant, rather than someone who should be wearing a lab coat and advancing research.
I guess sometimes life isn’t fair, but then at least my brother and I have the jumpstart we need for meaningful careers. I will never be able to fully express my gratitude for what they did. All I can do is try to make them proud.
*Name changed to protect identity.