Monday, November 2, 2009

Romanian immigrant fights a communist foe from the past

Published: Saturday, October 31, 2009

Man says his native Romania owes him for what he’s lost

By Debra Smith
Herald WriterEVERETT — At 71 years old, Viorel Ciubuc last week took his first trip to Washington, D.C.

The Snohomish County man didn’t go to see the U.S. Capitol building, the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.

He came to stand alone in front of the Romanian Embassy and to hold a hand-lettered sign that can‘t begin to express his frustration, his anger, his pain.

Romanian officials, under the country’s former communist regime, persecuted him because of his democratic ideals and even kept a secret file detailing his life. He fled to America in 1985.

Ciubuc has since scratched out a life for himself and his family in Everett. He’s never forgiven.

“What they did — it was abuse,” he said.

What he wants now is justice.

Ciubuc was born in a rural area outside Bucharest in 1938. He was the youngest of five children. His family eked out a living farming crops such as corn, wheat, sugar beets and sunflowers.

The Romanian government was taken over by communists in 1947. His father and grandfather resisted. His father, he said, “had a heart for America.”

That would haunt Ciubuc throughout his life in Romania.

When Ciubuc was 13, police took his father and grandfather away and beat his mother. His father wouldn’t come home for years. It fell to Ciubuc to do the work of a man, tending the farm in his father’s absence.

He later attended university and played professional soccer for Romania. He married and started a family.

By 1970, he had risen to a prestigious position as company director for the water department of Focsani County in Romania. He oversaw 5,000 workers. He remained a vocal critic of the communist regime.

The family knew they were being spied on. They would come home to find their apartment had been searched. He would learn later the Romanian secret police were monitoring his phone calls and following his wife to the market.

Fed up with the country’s politics, he approached U.S. officials in Romania in 1975 and asked to emigrate.

With the communist regime torturing and imprisoning its political opponents, that was a risky move. The country’s borders were closed and people were dying in attempts to sneak out.

Ciubuc never was physically harmed but approaching the Americans cost him dearly.

He lost his position and was demoted to a hard labor job. The government wouldn’t allow him to leave for another decade.

In communist Romania, this was especially devastating, said Ciubuc’s daughter, Claudia Hurst, now 37.

“Everybody was supposed to have the same things,” she said. “What differentiated you is your education and what you did and how far you got. And that was stripped away from him.”

America, for him then a land of freedom and prosperity, seemed like salvation for his family.

It was more complicated than that.

“I survive with my family, with my kids survive,” he said. “But I say in America we’ll be better.”

At 47, Ciubuc came to the United States a well-educated man, with a master’s degree in chemical engineering and years of experience in his field. The land of plenty would disappoint.

In 1985, U.S. immigration officials placed him and his family in public housing in north Everett. The apartment had two bedrooms. He and his wife had four children, the youngest just 3 months old.

The family didn’t know anyone. Ciubuc didn’t speak English well, much less understand the intricate workings of a new culture.

He searched for work, sending his resume to employers around the region. Few responded. When one did, he had to bring his oldest child Claudia, then 13, along to translate during interviews.

“I heard ‘You’re overqualified’ left and right,” Claudia Hurst remembered. “Here was this 47-year-old man who doesn’t speak English well. He’s too qualified for these basic jobs but nobody wants to hire him for the jobs he is qualified for.”

Ciubuc adjusted his expectations. He tried becoming a commercial fisherman in Alaska. For awhile he worked on a dairy farm in Snohomish. As weeks turned into months without steady work, the immigrations officials helping him became frustrated.

Even today it is a source of pain. He flips through his Romanian-to-English dictionary, searching for the word he said those Americans called him: “tramp.”

Finally, he found a job. The Everett Soccer Dome hired him as a referee. The pay was $5 an hour. He found work as a referee elsewhere, too. In more than two decades since he left Romania, it is the only profession he’s had.

“This is my English, the whistle,” he said, trilling an imaginary whistle.

Ciubuc has always believed his horizons were limited by the communist Romanian government. He had no way to prove it until he got his secret government file.

In 1989, Romania was no longer communist. Politicians there began to pass laws that provided more freedoms.

Ciubuc took advantage of that openness and traveled to Romania three years ago to see what information the Romanian secret police had gathered about him.

Today, he has a copy of that inch-thick file tucked away in a dresser drawer. On Wednesday, Ciubuc leafed through pages and pages of documents detailing what the Romanian communists deemed top secret. There were milestones from his personal and professional life, including copies of diplomas and grade transcripts; there were transcripts of wire-tap phone conversations; there were notes documenting his family’s comings and goings — even details of his wife buying milk at a grocery store.

Other documents showed that the secret police were planning to have him framed for a crime so he could be killed in prison, Ciubuc said.

He decided to sue the Romanian government. He got nowhere. The judge, he said, ignored a law that says Romanians who have lost their livelihood because of their political beliefs must be paid reparations.

It’s hard to know whether Ciubuc has a legitimate grievance.

Janina Cismaru, a spokeswoman at the Romanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Ciubuc peacefully protested outside the embassy and then met with two diplomats who agreed to transmit his complaint to authorities in Bucharest.

Embassy officials aren’t qualified to say whether his complaint is legitimate, but they did offer to help, she said.

During its communist days, state-sponsored torture and other ill treatment were prevalent and Romania hasn’t yet begun to address reparations in a widespread way, according to a 2003 study by the Redress Trust, a London-based human rights group. The authors of the report, which audited the laws and practices of 30 countries, found that Romania’s “present system of investigations provides no effective remedies for victims of torture and ill-treatment.”

Sometimes, his oldest daughter Claudia Hurst wonders why her dad can’t just let it go.

“He wants someone to say ‘Yes, you were wronged most of your life,’” she said. “He spent his life working hard and he has nothing to show for it.”

He spends hours sitting at the kitchen table, writing letters and faxing them away. His family describes him as good and kind and — this issue aside — easy-going.

Ciubuc acknowledged that he confuses Romanian officials. Like he once did, they too seem to think that his life in America should be reward enough. They seem to think “dollars grow on trees” here.

But the fight is about more than money.

“I fight for my soul,” Ciubuc said.

Not only did the Romanian communists take away his job and his future, they also stole from him the idea of who he was in the world. For example, Ciubuc learned that his best friend in Romania, a man he shared a dorm room with in college, actually was an informant for the secret police, and was spying on him.

“If he’s a little obsessed about it that’s understandable,” his daughter said. “It’s hard to know what any one of us would do in that situation.”

Ciubuc’s fight has escalated far beyond letter writing. Last year he exercised his rights of dual citizenship and tried to run for senate in Romania. He gathered 2,000 signatures in a week, but fell short of gaining a place on the ballot. He’s still hoping his protest in front of the Romanian embassy will yield results. An official at the embassy talked with him and took a copy of his file. The official promised to pass his claim onto the Romanian Justice Department.

Then Ciubuc says he was told to leave or the Romanians would call Washington, D.C. police.

“I have the law, I have the law,” he said. “I am right.”

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