At a Church in Queens, the Pull of Romania

When Sorin Petrutoni left Romania, he carried with him memories of neighbors, as they faced widespread food shortages and starvation, stealing to feed their families.

He fled the country 27 years ago, just a year before the Communist government under Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown, in 1989. He finds the effect of communism hard to describe. “The country is beautiful, the land, the women,” he says. “But if you know what it means, communism, you know everything.”

Now he lives in Queens, and as he prepares for the February 5 Sunday liturgy service—as the President of St. Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church in Elmhurst—Petrutoni, 58, appears at home. He smiles widely to each parishioner as they file in. Yet most of the church members are, like Petrutoni, Romanian immigrants who remember well life under communism. And as widespread protests erupt in Romania for the first time since 1989, they’re reminded of it again.

The demonstrations this year began in response to the ruling Social Democrat Party’s decree, on February 1, legalizing corruption under 200,000 lei (approx. $48,000). The measure was purportedly designed to lower incarceration rates, but ctizens found it a thinly-veiled attempt to protect crooked officials, and they flocked to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, more than 250,000 in the capital of Bucharest alone.

These were the largest protests seen since the Romanian Revolution in 1989 that ended 42 years of communism and culminated in the violent execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The new turmoil reminded many of those times, fraught with anger and instability. On Sunday, most of the worshipers at St. Mary’s were unaware that the decree had been withdrawn, in response to the demonstrations, just moments before the church service was to begin, and just days after the law had been announced.

Thousands of protestors crowd the streets to voice anger against recent corruption decree (Courtesy of AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda).

Thousands of protestors crowd Romanian streets to voice anger against a recent decree decriminalizing corruption. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda).


Their reactions were mixed. Petrutoni himself said he never believed the law would take hold. “There’s no way,” he said, and he said he expects President Klaus Iohannis, a member of the Independent party, will advocate for the people to avoid violence. Petrutoni last visited Romania just three months ago. Most of his family still lives in Timisoara, a populous city in Western Romania, including his mother and 46 first cousins. He has faith that the country will continue to improve. “It’s tough,” he says. “It’s a process.”

Floarea Dan, 70 years old and a cashier at the church, agrees. “It was politically empty after 1989,” she says. “We didn’t know what democracy looked like… We didn’t know what direction to take.” Dan worked as a middle school mathematics teacher before immigrating in 1995, leaving behind two children and four grandkids. She visits often, and thinks the government still has a ways to go toward achieving functional democracy. “The people in power know where the honey is, and democracy is not easy.”

Worshipers gather in St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Church in Elmhurst, Queens the day Romania''s corruption decree is repealed.

Worshipers gather in St. Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church in Elmhurst, Queens the day Romania”s corruption decree is repealed.

Younger church-goers are reluctant to trust the process. Iustin Bertea, 20, studies finance at St. Johns University and left Romania just six years ago to follow his father, Chesarie Bertea, an Orthodox priest, in pursuit of opportunity and financial stability. He worries about the effects of the protests, and the ruling party’s leniency towards corruption. “It’s troubling and scary,” he says. “Political instability can affect the currency and deter investors. Now the young people have another reason to leave, and then who will bring jobs and invest in the infrastructure?”

Bertea fears this could result in an aging population without a promising generation to replace them. He visits home once a year to attend theology school, he says, but finds that many of his friends have left for places like Italy and Spain. He fears that if political unrest continues they may never return.

Bertea blames the likelihood of such a future on low voter turnout among young Romanians during their most recent December election. The Social Democrat Party (PSD) won 46 percent of the vote, but voter turnout topped out at a meager 39 percent. Bertea expressed appreciation for the hundreds of thousands who protested, but “If some of those protestors had voted,” he says, “they could have changed who was in power.”

Radu Zanfir, 27, agrees.  The protests were “a step in the right direction, and it was good that it wasn’t violent.” But he’s grown weary of the politics. Just a year ago the Social Democrats were forced to resign from office after a deadly nightclub fire believed to be the result of negligence prompted widespread outrage. On October 30, 2015 a fire in Club Colectiv killed 64 and injured 147 after the illegal use of outdoor pyrotechnics inside the club sparked a blaze accelerated by the ceiling, which was coated with flammable soundproofing foam. Subsequent investigations found 3,200 violations in bars and venues across the country, including Club Colectiv, which had been handed an operating license without approval from the fire department. Then came accusations of election fraud, followed by the now-repealed corruption decree. “It’s always the same scandals, the same accusations,” Zanfir says. “I follow the news but now I don’t care.”

A common thread in each story at the church seems to be hope tainted by knowledge of the past. The country many of these churchgoers call home can be a hard one to miss. Simona M. (who declined to provide her last name), remembers a visit in the winter of 2009 when she watched an elderly man wait 30 minutes in line at the pharmacy to fill his prescriptions, only to realize he didn’t have enough money. “After all that waiting, he had to say ‘I can’t afford these. I’ll have to come back next month.’” She says. “I just cried in the street.”

Simona, 46, says she faces criticism from family members back home when she speaks of these things. “They tell me: ‘You left. You don’t know what it’s like.’” But it’s clear that many here at St. Mary’s still feel the pull of home, their ties too strong to be dissolved by distance.