By Luciana Grosu
In Romania there are about 60 000 legal immigrants, most of them of Arab, Turkish, Chinese and Moldavian origin. The presence of foreign citizens in Romania is a rather unknown phenomenon as neither they, nor the media raise much attention about it. But what do immigrants want from Romania and how do they really feel here?
The Arab-origin immigrants
The first citizens from a several Arab states like Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon came to study in communist Romania during the ’70s-’80s, when Romania had official agreements with some of the Arab states. In those years the communist Eastern countries supported what they considered anti-imperialist allies, like the Arab states. After the fall of the communist regime some of the former students who had gone back home after their studies decided to return to Romania and start a business in the newly-democratic state. Between 1992 and 1995 a new, but smaller wave of Arabian citizens came to Romania for business purposes. Finally, in the late ‘90s a significant number of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees reached Romania.
Most Arab immigrants in Romania declare to be quite content with their lives here. Mixed families (Romanian wife –Arab husband) are a common sight. Usually, Arabs prefer not to mention the obstacles they hope to overcome with the help of their communities and by personal efforts. We stopped to talk to a few Arab immigrants in one of Bucharest’s downtown malls
“Well, I don’t know yet if I’ll stay forever in Romania. But in my home country there is war”, says an Iraqi father. His wife and two children look at him, talk in Arabic and laugh. The young woman doesn’t understand Romanian very well, yet the 12-years old boy already speaks the new language. “I go to the Iraqi school and it’s ok, I am content”, says the little boy with a determined voice. His younger sister, who wears the hijab, smiles and whispers something to him in Arabic. She seems very amused by the unusual questions made to her brother. ”The children will however go to a Romanian high school”, explains the father. He works in the business sector and is glad that Romania “is a more secure place” than his birth-country.
“I like Romania. I have been living here for the last 25 years”. Isam is another Iraqi man who originally came to Romania for studies. “Before coming to Romania, I’ve been a refugee in Sweden for one and a half years. I didn’t like it. People were so cold. I needed a culture closer to mine, a country where people like to talk, to dance, to make new friends”. Isam is now married to a woman from the Republic of Moldova. His children go to a Romanian school. They don’t speak Arabic at home. “My children don’t speak my language, but they are Muslims”, says Isam proudly. He says his children are well-integrated at school: “There’s no discrimination. Teachers even encouraged foreign students to create little presentations in order to introduce their cultures to their Romanian colleagues.” But what Isam really hates is the “terrorist label” attached to his religion: “People should understand that we are not terrorists and we have nothing to do with Bin Laden. Our religion is “salam” (peace) and all we want is to live peacefully”. Isam wants to raise his children in Romania; he never visits Iraq and has no plans of returning to his birth country. “I wish my country became peaceful and democratic”, he says sadly.
“When I grow up, I want to be a doctor”, says a little Lebanese girl.” Well, we all dream of becoming doctors at a certain moment in our childhood”, adds her mother with a doubtful voice. “My daughter now goes to the Bucharest Lebanese school. She will then go to an Arabic high school where she will learn Romanian, too. And, of course, the Faculty will have to be a Romanian-language one.” explains her father. He and his wife came to Romania 12 years ago for economic reasons. They say Romanians are quite welcoming people. “Here there is more democracy than in Lebanon. Bureaucracy and taxes are serious problems, though. But business goes well”, states the Lebanese business-man.
”I left Syria because of many reasons, social, economical, political”, Yamin, a 30-years old man from Syria answers evasively. He also works in business and although he has only been in Romania for one year and a few months, he speaks Romanian quite well. “I am ok. I work here and I can say Romania is alright for me”, he concludes.
The Asian-origin immigrants
According to statistics, there are around 4000 Chinese immigrants in Romania. Most of the Chinese came to Romania after 1989, the year the communist regime fell. The majority of them are involved in small commercial activities. Chinese prefer to live in the bigger Romanian cities: Bucharest, Cluj, or Constanta. In Bucharest, many Chinese people decided to settle in Colentina’s district, which is about to become a real “Chinatown”. Mixed families are quite rare. There is no Chinese school in Romania as most children are sent back to China for studies once they reach school-age.
Other Asian-origin immigrants in Romania come from Pakistan, India, or Vietnam. Asian immigrants share the same hesitation as the Arab immigrants to give details about the problems they encounter in their daily lives. We decided to ask some questions to a few Asian groups taking a walk in a sunny park in north Bucharest.
“I don’t know if my stay in Romania is definitive, but I’ve been living here for 9 years now “, says a middle-age Chinese business- man in perfect Romanian. “The most difficult thing here is to buy a house. For the rest, I have nothing to complain about”.
Three Chinese men smile and answer in Chinese. They don’t understand Romanian at all. They are new-comers. They struggle to guess the questions, but can only reply by showing their temporary resident permits.
“The streets here are awful. There are many holes in the streets and there’s heavy traffic”, says Yang, a young Chinese woman. She owns a small clothing shop. She has been living in Romania for 9 years and says people are friendly. “Romanians are nice people, in general. Once in a while, one can tell you nasty words, but normally this doesn’t happen.” she adds smiling.
“Well, I can tell you I’ve been here for 15 years now and I still don’t have the Romanian citizenship”, says discontent Iftikhar Ahmed , a 38 years-old Pakistani man. He thinks the procedure for obtaining the Romanian citizenship is way too complicated. “You know, there are language and culture tests, but I’ve never been to school in Romania, so how can I know the right answers?” Ahmed feels that it is also unfair that his Romania-born children are not Romanian citizens. “My children will only be able to apply for Romanian citizenship when they’ll be 18”, he explains dissatisfied.
“Citizenship is a problem”, recognizes at his turn another middle-aged Pakistani man. “I have been living in Romania for 20 years now and I am still not a Romanian citizen. Neither are my children, who were born here”. Ahmed Zia thinks the Romanian law is tougher than the law of other EU states.” I’ve traveled to Germany, UK, to other EU states. They have different laws there. One can become a citizen only after 5 years of permanent residence. It’s not like this in Romania”, he expresses. “In other countries, the government provides housing for immigrants. But here, no”, Ahmed adds. He thinks for a moment. He says he would like to improve many things in Romania.” Small business should be better protected.” Ahmed says. But most importantly, immigrant children should have easier access to education: “Foreign citizens can only enter the Romanian education system by paying. This is tough for us because it means that children never get free books from school as other children do”, Ahmed explains.
Immigrants in Romania don’t make the news and try to avoid conflicts with the Romanian majority. However, too often they also avoid opening themselves. It is up to the national media to further investigate the hidden facts about what it means to be living as an immigrant in Romania. Problems like access to education health care, and housing, or acquiring citizenship and learning Romanian language and culture should be better addressed. Immigrants’ distrust toward authorities is another issue requiring more attention: too often immigrants are afraid to come forward with their problems.
* The article was published in October 2009 on the website of the German foundation Heinrich-Bölle-Stiftung. Luciana Grosu is among the three short-listed candidates for the online category of the Anna Lindh Journalist Award 2010.