As a male in the communist Romania of the late 20th century, Jennifer’s father was drafted into the military as soon as he turned 18.
When his service came to an end, he and his young wife began a strictly-regulated life of rations and overbearing government control. There was never enough: not enough food, gasoline, space, freedom. The couple decided they wanted to build a life in America, but they’d have to be careful who they told and how they went about leaving: it was dangerously illegal for Romanians to leave the country.
Jennifer’s uncle, her mom’s brother, tried to escape for the first time when he was just 17. He was captured by the Yugoslavian authorities, who brought him back to the Romanian border. The Romanian officials there beat him so badly that he developed a brain infection and headaches that persist to this day. They threw him back against a brick wall with such force that his body knocked a brick out of the wall.
If Jennifer’s uncle had gone to prison, he would have faced 3-5 years of brutal confinement, beatings, and physical torture. He was only able to avoid prison because he was a minor at the time.
He tried again when he was 19, this time with Jennifer’s dad. They risked being shot by authorities as they sprinted past the border in the dead of night. They swam across the Danube River and made it to Yugoslavia, only to be jailed for two weeks as foreigners without proper papers. Most people in this particular jail were refugees trying to escape to other places in Europe—the facility essentially functioned as a holding camp.
From Yugoslavia, Jennifer’s dad traveled to Austria, where he officially applied to be able to come to the United States.