Into the great American melting pot. From Romania

OUR church isn't too eager to sponsor another refugee family. Twenty-two years ago the church sponsored some refugees who, it was later discovered, were rowdy and associated with undesirables. The memory lingers, and so it takes some talking to get old-timers to agree to help sponsor a Romanian family. The Romanians looked safe enough. He knows some English. He's a waiter and she's a seamstress, very employable. No children, which is a plus for a church not too keen on sponsoring more refugees. Two years elapse. The Romanians can't get exit visas. The church relaxes. Emergency phone call. The Romanians are coming, they and their baby. They've had a baby.

They arrive, and surprise! These aren't downtrodden peasants wearing scarfs on their heads and carrying baskets on their arms. These are rather hip young Eastern Europeans who listen to Pink Floyd, wear stylish clothes, and have named their baby after Priscilla Presley. Moreover, they're ambitious. Within two days the waiter is working at a local restaurant and grousing about bad tips.

They reject a mobile home in favor of a small, fully carpeted apartment. They love to entertain and serve elegantly prepared meals. They run up a $290 phone bill calling Romania and pay it off all by themselves. In Romania, they say, their Bucharest apartment's temperature rarely rose above 50 degrees F. There wasn't enough food. Products of quality were exported, inferior products were sold domestically. There were almost more policemen than citizens, they say. And one of the nicer things about living in America: Here when you get off work you know you're going home. In Romania, so they claim, you never knew: home or jail.

Our waiter friend says he tried to escape from Romania when he was 14. He was caught and sent to jail. As newlyweds, he and his wife tried to escape again, but she started crying, so they turned around and went back home.

Now she cries from homesickness, sometimes. And when he has to work on their wedding anniversary, she shows friends pictures of their wedding. Her eyes also well up with tears as she watches Priscilla celebrate her first birthday, and her first birthday in America, in a $58 pink dress (``two days' worth of wages,'' says the seamstress, who sometimes works 60-hour weeks at her new job at the Korean dry cleaners).

The waiter is learning to drive. He's in an amusement park parking lot, empty during the off-season, and he puts the car in reverse, watches in the rearview mirror, in helpless fascination, as the car backs round and round, crazily spinning out of control, nothing to hit but the potholes. He says he drove once or twice in Romania, but only at night and very fast. He knows driving, he says, he's seen Steve McQueen movies.

He wants to buy a house, but the bank won't let him until he's been here two years. He wants to buy a car and asks, innocently, about Corvettes. He wants to earn money at home and falls prey to too many ``send-$10-and-earn-thousands-of-dollars'' classified ads. He enters all the contests and sweepstakes that come in the junk mail, and loses $39 to a rip-off employment agency.

There are rough times. Sometimes it seems appropriate to drop off food at the apartment, a winter blanket, cash from an anonymous donor. The Romanians are proud, and they hate to take help; only if you say it's for Priscilla will they accept it. But they insist on doing favors in return. Cutting wood. Sewing. A special Romanian custard sent over in a casserole.

She picks up some English, weird English from the Korean dry cleaner. He changes jobs and starts getting good tips. After eight months in America they break away from the church's refugee project committee. They try their independence, take the bus to shopping malls, make friends not affiliated with the church.

Occasionally you wonder, will they continue here or go back home. It must be hard, leaving a slow-paced, Old World culture for fast-paced, fast-food America. It can't be easy, having arrived with only one 60-pound suitcase each and leaving all their family and friends.

Of course it isn't easy, yet it looks like they're going to stay. They got a kitten just this week, and now the church has decided to sponsor the seamstress' older sister.

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