Local student visits grandparents in Romania  for first time since coming to America

By Rozella Hardin
STAR STAFF
rhardin@starhq.com

   Bettina Chirica, an 11-year-old fifth grader at Harold McCormick School, has gone to visit her grandparents. What's so unusual about the visit is that Bettina's grandparents live in Transylvania, Romania, and it is the first time she has visited them since coming to America almost eight years ago
   Bettina is very excited about the visit as are her parents, Victor and Gabrielle, who came to America in 1992 -- two years before their daughter.
   Theirs is a story of a family who thirsted for freedom in a communist-ruled country, and decided to make a break for the free world at all costs.
   The Chirica family's story begins in December 1989, when pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in Timisoara, Romania to protest the government of President Nicolae Caeusescu.
   They were fired upon by troops loyal to Caeusescu, and hundreds were killed and buried in mass graves.
   Five days later, undaunted by the fate of pro-democracy protesters in Timisoara, the protests had spread to Bucharest, where security forces fired on peaceful demonstrators again.
   This record of brutality finally caught up with Caeusescu after Romania's army turned against him and fought against troops still loyal to the long-time president.
   After days of fighting, the government was overthrown, and on Christmas day, 1989, Nicolae Caeusescu and his wife were charged with genocide and executed after a trial.
   A new president was elected, but in mid-1990, pro- and anti-government forces clashed again. After seeing one communist leader fall, and another take his place, Victor Chirica, a resident of Henedoara, in Transylvania, a province of Romania, decided it was time to leave his home country.
   Chirica, who had been part of pro-democracy protests in his town, left in the middle of the night and headed for Germany. Actually, his plan was well-conceived. He obtained a visa to visit neighboring Czechoslovakia, and from there he walked 20 miles to the German border, where he sought refuge.
   His wife, Gabrielle, had relatives living in West Germany, with whom he hoped to stay. After talking to the U.S. Embassy in Frankfurt, Germany, Chirica located in Germany with Gabrielle's relatives and waited, hoping that his wife could join him there.
   Having relatives in Germany, Gabriella had no problem obtaining a visa. From Germany, the couple made it to the U.S. as part of a sponsorship program that gave them a place to stay in America for six months while they adjusted to living in a new land. First Presbyterian Church, 119 West F St., decided to sponsor the couple, and so, Victor and Gabriella's search for democracy ended right here in Elizabethton.
   There was a problem, though. They had to leave their two-year-old daughter behind in the care of Gabriella's parents in Romania. She was their only grandchild. Once in America, the couple began the paperwork to get their daughter out of Romania and into the U.S. -- a process that took almost two years. "We missed her terribly," said Victor, who proudly flaunts the scholastic achievements of his daughter. "She makes the honor roll all the time," he said.
   Victor, who first worked at North America Rayon Corp., when he came to America, has been employed at Mapes Piano String for several years in Quality Control.
   While Victor does not know what to expect in Romania now, he and his wife have kept in touch with their parents. "We talk two or three times a month on the telephone," he said. "They are as anxious to see us as we are them," he added.
   The Chiricas were scheduled to fly out of Atlanta early Friday morning on the first leg of their trans-Atlantic trip, which will take them to Paris, France; then to Vienna, Austria, and from there home to Romania. "I love my country, and I hope someday to return there to live," Victor said, noting that in many ways the landscape of his native country is like East Tennessee -- "the mountains and all, you know," he said.
   When the Chiricas left Albania, and for several years later, borders were changing almost on a daily basis as nations reeled with the promise of democracy after decades of communist rule.
   The government has stabilized since the days of Caeusescu and his successor Iliescu, and now it is safe for the Chiricas to go home for a visit. "For a while it was not safe to go back," Victor said.
   "When Iliescu's party took over, it was very confusing. The people do not know what is happening. They make life very hard for the people," Victor said.
   Gabriella was part of democracy protests at her university, where she studied accounting. "Our teachers tried to stop us," Gabriella said. Teachers at the school would find out who was involved with the democracy process and some who demonstrated were kicked out of the university.
   For some time after coming to America, the Chiricas heard no news from Romania because of government censureship of letters coming into and going out of the country.
   "American people are so free. This stuff about pipe bombs, and the crime, I do not understand," Victor said last week, as he prepared for his trip home.
   "We have been planning this trip for a long time. We have always wanted to go back," he said.
   "We do not know what to expect, but it will be great to see our parents again. Bettina is very excited," Victor said.
   Gabriella is an only child, while Victor has an older brother. He worked as a metallurgist in Romania.
   "When we decided to leave Europe, my first choice was Canada, but we came here because the church sponsored us. It was a good place to come. We made many friends," he said.
   The family attends First United Methodist Church.
   Before leaving Friday, Bettina was presented a camera and journal with which to record her trip home by Principal John Hutchins on behalf of the students and staff at Harold McCormick. When Bettina returns in 10 days to complete the school year, she, no doubt, will have lots to share with her classmates and friends.
   "She is a typical 12-year-old. She likes to ride her bike and hang out with her friends," Victor said.