When the shades of COVID came down over our land a year and a half ago like curtains over a window, many of us sensed that something darker than a virus was coming. But no one saw it so clearly as citizens who’ve immigrated from Communist countries.
While many of us grew suspicious of the truth, my family from Eastern Europe looked it squarely in the eye.
Mihaela Costea, mother of four and grandmother of eleven, came to the United States over forty years ago. She left behind everything she knew – the land, the people, the customs – and came to America with only the clothes on her back. Under President Jimmy Carter, who facilitated the safe immigration of persecuted Christians into America, Mia came with her husband, Ted, their three children, and most of their extended family in search of a better life. Mia – my mother-in-law – graciously agreed to be interviewed for this post.
What do you remember about your first few days in America?
MC: “When we got here, it was like heaven. It was the shock of our lives to go to the store. It was the first time I saw a gallon of milk, at 29 years old… I almost fainted. It was scary, though. We had to find work. We didn’t know the language. My mother would go to the market with English words and phrases taped to her bicycle.”
So tell me, of all the places you could’ve gone, why did you choose America? I’ve lived here all my life, so it’s the only thing I know. I’m curious, what was it about America that made it worthwhile to leave behind everything you knew?
MC: “Oh, it was the dream of everybody to get to America. America was always the land of the free. It was a very different country back then. We came to America to give our children a better life. We could go and worship without being afraid. We wanted our children to have opportunities to be able to choose their own career and work. We wanted to make a better life for them.”
And why was it that you had to leave Romania at all?
MC: “My dad had gone to prison for distributing Bibles. He was labelled a political threat, and he was considered an enemy of the state. We thought, they might come for us for no reason, like they did with my mom and dad.”
Can you share some of your memories – what it was like growing up with Communism?
MC: “I never had a childhood. No time to read… I was a labor-child. I remember getting up at five o’clock in the morning to take the cow out to graze, when I was at my grandfather’s house. And I remember standing in line for hours, to get bread, and milk, and firewood. Sometimes when you got to the front of the line, they didn’t have anything left.
I took care of my six year-old sister. I had no time to do anything but work. She had to go to daycare all week, Monday through Friday, nights too – because Mom was working. It was a nice, clean daycare, but we missed her. When [my sister] needed an operation on her ears, I took her to the hospital on my bicycle.
When I was eight years old, my dad was arrested [for distributing Bibles]. Mom was an educated woman. She used to be a teacher, but when Dad was in prison, she had to take a night shift job as a janitor just to keep a roof over our heads.
After they arrested Dad, the KGB came to our house and took our grand piano, they took one of our gas grills. I remember that I had to take our Christian materials over to an aunt’s house so the KGB wouldn’t find them.
I remember that food was scarce. We rarely had meat or fruit. If we had a banana, we would sniff it for hours before eating it. We did not have butter; we would eat lard on bread while Mom was sleeping [due to working night shift].”
And you said you came to America at age 29 – when you already had three children. What was it like raising children under Communism?
MC: “I don’t remember having any fruit for my children. I remember going to the store for food for my children and coming home empty-handed, because the stores would run out.
Healthcare was free if you were healthy. But if your child had a serious illness or needed surgery, you would have to find a doctor who was willing to treat them and be paid under the table. If you wanted your child to survive, you would have to do it in secret, and you couldn’t tell anyone. And in Romania, you had to pay teachers under the table to get your children into college.”
You’ve mentioned food scarcity, hard work as a child, and other problems, like your dad being taken to prison. What would you say was the worst thing about Communism?
MC: “The fear. The oppression. The division in families.”
You once told me that you ‘see the signs…’ that you see things happening in America now that remind you of Communism. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you are seeing?
MC: “It’s the fact that we’ve lost our freedom of speech. We are afraid to speak up. In Romania we never had freedom of speech.
Also, the lawlessness goes by and nobody does anything about it – if somebody wrongs you, nobody’s gonna stick up for you if it’s not in their best interest.
And the shortage of food – it’s not as bad but I see the signs – like certain produce is gone and it does not come back. And how we have to go and stay in line for toilet paper. The way I see it, it [the shortages] will only get worse. You get to prices you can’t even touch.
The oppression of the churches – that is a very big sign. They found a way to oppress and close the churches. We used to be afraid to speak up [in Romania] – it feels that way again.”
You also said before that what’s happening in America is ‘worse than communism.’ Can you tell me why you think that?
MC: “Because they are using the coronavirus as an excuse, as a means to shut up the Christians and close the churches. This is not about the coronavirus. In Romania, we knew Communism was wrong because they took our Bibles, they said, ‘this conflicts with our ideology, so you cannot have it.’ But here in America, they are being very sneaky. They are blaming it on a virus.
I never thought it could happen here. If they can close the churches, they cut people off from the truth. The Lord is coming and they are not there to hear it. The [politicians] are isolating us and turning us against each other.”
Do you have any advice for those of us who are living in America now and are also trying to build a good life for our children?
MC: “Use your First Amendment rights while you still can. Speak up, and vote.
Watch out for who is teaching your children – and what they are teaching them. Look out for your children.
Keep a little extra food in the house – enough for a month or so. Like canned and dry goods. Learn to cook, or grow some of your own food if you can.
Go to your local church, get to know your community. Look out for each other, take care of each other. In Communism, Mom and Dad had good friends, believers, that shared food and took care of each other.”
Thank you, Mia, for sharing your memories and your advice with parents everywhere.