Claremont Neighbors: Ortansa Alexiu
Classic hardboiled immigrant stories often begin with, “I came here with nothing.”
But we wonder: Is it really possible to arrive in a foreign land with hope and little else?
Well, not only did Ortansa Alexiu manage it, she made her journey in 1970 from then communist Romania to America with her husband, Stefan, and their six-year-old daughter.
And when they got here, there were more classic elements at play; kind strangers propped them up, salt of the earth material to which we all aspire.
“It was scary because we didn’t know the language, we didn’t have any friends here, we didn’t have any relatives, nobody,” said Ortansa Alexiu, now 90.
It was a long journey, peppered with intrigue worthy of a John LeCarré novel, complete with outsmarting Cold War communist border guards, months in an Italian refugee camp, and more than several lucky breaks. Half-century later, the story is as titillating as ever.
A Claremont resident since 1996, Ms. Alexiu has been a fixture as a volunteer at the Joslyn Center for 20 years. Her English is still charmingly Romanian-inflected, and her ready smile masks her tales of considerable struggle. Her playful sense of humor is evident when asked about her age:
“Don’t get a shock!” she said with a laugh. “I was born in Galati, Romania, in 1930.”
She long knew she would flee the bleakness of communist Romania. It was just a matter of when and how.
Her first attempt came in 1967. “We asked permission to go legally, but no permission for Romanians,” Ms. Alexiu said. “So we asked permission to go to Yugoslavia, and they gave permission to go. But we have a [three-year-old] baby, and they didn’t let us go with a baby. We went back. We made plans.”
Three years later, the family decided to try and convince Romanian officials to allow them to vacation in Yugoslavia.
“It was July, if you wearing more clothes, they can guess that you not coming back,” Ms. Alexiu said. “So, we went to Yugoslavia and we went to the Italian border, and they stop us and say, ‘Where are you going?’ And we say, ‘We want to visit Italy.’”
It was a risky move. Since relations between Yugoslavia and Romania were tenuous, depending on which way the political wind was blowing, they risked jail if the Italian border guards didn’t believe their story.
“The Italians said, ‘What do you want?’” Ms. Alexiu recalled. “We said, ‘We want to visit Italy.’ They said, ‘No. You cannot. Go back and come with a passport.’ But my husband said, ‘What if we want to stay here?’ And they said, ‘Oh, that’s another problem. Come in.’ So they let us go in.”
For the first six months they were housed in a small Italian refugee camp. Later they were moved to a larger camp.
“From there they asked us, ‘Where you want to go?’ Because Italy have so much people, they said, we don’t take.
“So we said, ‘To America.’ So, we have to stay waiting for six months for visa.”
They landed in New York in December 1970.
A church charity put the family up in a hotel in New York City. They had no money, and subsisted on the charity’s food handouts. They stayed two days in the hotel. It was overwhelming, exhilarating, terrifying.
“I was scared,” Ms. Alexiu said. “I was going in the elevator with my daughter, who was six years old. I put her first, and I didn’t have time [to get in]. So, she got scared, and I got scared, but we found each other.”
In the meantime, the man who had driven the family from the airport to the hotel in New York decided to help them. He took them to Columbus, Ohio, got them a place to stay, and showed them how to register for government food assistance.
Then more anonymous help arrived.
“I don’t know from where, but a doctor in Columbus, Ohio, he knocked on the door and said, ‘Are you Romanian? You don’t have a telephone. How are you going to find a job?’” Ms. Alexiu said. “So he ordered a telephone. And after that he took my husband and bought him an older car. He said, ‘You cannot function here. You not find job if you not have telephone and car.’”
Still another stranger in Columbus, a pharmacist who had emigrated many years prior, then stepped forward to help Ms. Alexiu.
“He took me to Ohio State Library,” she said. “And there was a lady who hired people there. And he knew her. And he said, ‘She have to work.’ And she said, ‘Can you come tomorrow?’ And so I got my first job. Ninety dollars per month. We were still receiving stamp for food. My husband find a job in Ohio in another city. He was coming and going.”
The Alexius spent three years in Ohio, establishing their roots in America.
In 1973 Mr. Alexiu traveled back to New York City for a job interview. There he was offered a position with Con Edison that took the family to Los Angeles.
They lived near downtown LA for some time before moving to Claremont in 1996.
Their Daughter is now grown. She graduated from St. Lucy’s High School, in Glendora, and was married in Claremont. She has two children of her own now.
Mr. Alexiu, 95, is in assisted living nearby. Ms. Alexiu can be found most days at her volunteer booth at the Joslyn Center, smile at the ready, grateful.
by Mick Rhodes