Forty Years Ago
At the end of this month, my three sisters and I, together with our spouses and our children, will celebrate 40 years since the Stefan family has arrived in this country. December 1966, we flew on KLM from Rome to New York, went to Akron for a few weeks, and then settled in Detroit. For a number of years my parents paid for those KLM tickets which brought us to this wonderful and blessed country. My parents were very patriotic and it took a lot of systematic religious persecution to convince my parents to leave Yugoslavia. At the top of the religious persecution was the known fact that children of religious people without becoming members of the Young People’s Communist Party would not succeed in their educational aspirations. In fact one of the local Communist leaders at one of the school meetings pressed in my hands a communist membership card and a star, just in case if I changed my mind. I hid them outside the house for a couple of weeks, and then even without talking to my parents I returned them. We stayed in the refugee camps of Italy from August, 1965 to December 1966. This was double the time that most people stayed. Only God knows why we stayed that long. It could have been because my Father was previously sick with tuberculosis and our first application was rejected; it could have been because he did not allow the local camp priest to come and bless our room, and upon being rejected he muttered to the next immigrant, “I will show that stubborn Baptist how much longer he will stay here!” or it could have been because a family of six needed assurances of employment in order to get into the United States. The refugee camp had an impact on me because I know what it means to go outside the camp and seek daily employment. For many days we did not get employment, but then I got steady employment with an electrical shop and stayed with them for close to a year. The daily work with my father or at the shop was hard, but it was better than staying in the camp the whole day doing nothing. Somehow, males gain meaning in providing for their families and we were thankful for the many days that we worked at loading and unloading manure! It was in the refugee camp that I did my first group Bible Study. I was 16 when I started a Bible study in the refugee camp. Not having books to study in order to prepare, I started an inductive Bible study of Genesis. I was serious about an in-depth Bible study because I think I did the first two verses in one hour.It was also here that I started my study of languages. I studied Italian, which is pretty close to Romanian (both being Romance languages). My parents and I traveled to a Baptist Church in Rome and I was asked to speak on behalf of my parents. I thought that I did a great job until I sat down and one of the kids told me that I basically botched my first presentation. Probably that is why I loved John Macalister so much. He was the English teacher in the refugee camp and he must have loved us because he was so patient with us. He fought in World War II in the British Army that landed in Italy and, having married an Italian young lady, settled in Naples. Five days a week he would come from Naples to teach us the English language that was so important for our future - he was one of the happiest people that I have ever met in my life. Because of staying 16 months in the refugee camps, when we arrived in the United States I had fallen close to two years behind in my education. In a way I tried to catch up by speeding through my high school and college years. Looking back, I think that I should have stayed the regular time and enjoyed my years both in high school and in college. Nevertheless, I have to mention the fantastic teachers and students from Thunderbird Junior High in Akron, Ohio and Nolan Junior High in Detroit. They welcomed me and from the first day in the classroom sought to help me in so many ways. The students walked with me home every day, they took me to the school activities in their parents’ cars and they explained to me all the problems that I could not solve. The First Romanian Baptist Church of Akron, Ohio and the First Romanian Baptist Church of Detroit, Mich. have sponsored our arrival here. What a day it was to arrive here and to be interviewed by the local newspaper (Akron) and to come to an apartment that had everything - beds, warm rooms and a refrigerator stuffed with food. Within a couple of days from arriving here, both my parents had full-time jobs. In the summer of 1973, together with a group of students from Wheaton College, I traveled through Europe, and they wanted to see the refugee camp of Capua, where we stayed the longest (12 months). I got as close as one mile from it when I could not go any further. I believe that old proverb that you can always go back home, but somehow that afternoon, I could not go back to the refugee camp. They sensed my pain and returned with me without ever visiting it.