Originally published in Castine Patriot, August 3, 2017
Immigration connects Castine and Romania
Emil Dobrescu recounted his journey as an immigrant to the United States during a talk at the Hutchins Education Center at the Wilson Museum on July 24.
by Monique Labbe
In 1988, Emil Dobrescu fled the government oppression of Romania in search of freedom. Before that, though, a passion he developed for studying Native American culture led to correspondence with several organizations in the United States. One of those correspondences led to a decades-long letter exchange between Dobrescu and the Wilson Museum’s Elinore Doudiet. Those letter exchanges created a relationship that changed Dobrescu’s life and continued until Doudiet’s death in 2004.
Dobrescu recounted his journey from Romania to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1996, during a talk at the Hutchins Center on July 24.
“If not for Mrs. Doudiet, I don’t know where I would be,” said Dobrescu, noting that the letters they exchanged kept his spirits up throughout the eight-year process of immigrating and obtaining citizenship.
Dobrescu left Romania for Israel in 1988, under the false pretense of being a Jew visiting relatives in that country. At that time, Romania had an agreement with Israel that Jews would be allowed to leave the country only to go to Israel.
“Romania was in such oppression that we were not allowed to have relations with anybody outside of the country,” said Dobrescu. “Any letters, any mail that came in went through the eyes of the customs officers first. If it was deemed acceptable, it would then be delivered to the post office.”
This did not stop Dobrescu from communicating with the world outside of Romania, and when he wrote to several societies requesting information on Native American cultures, only a handful wrote back. One of those people was Doudiet.
Dobrescu continued to communicate with Doudiet throughout his journey, particularly when he arrived in Greece through a “series of events.” Dobrescu lived in Greece for two years, burying himself in learning the language so that he would be able to obtain work and pass as a Greek citizen.
“At that time in Greece, you received a blue card as an immigrant saying they could not deport you, but you were not allowed to work. So I was faced with two options; work until they found out I wasn’t a citizen and go to jail, or work and hope they didn’t figure out who I was. I didn’t want to go to jail,” he said.
Because of his dark complexion and his ability to pick up the language, Dobrescu was able to acquire jobs here and there, though living with the fear of being found out wore at the young immigrant.
“At one point I was let go from work and I spent almost a week without food,” he said. “I was tired and hungry, but letters from Mrs. Doudiet kept me going. She did not sympathize for me, she told me to keep going, that I could do it.”
Around this time, Doudiet had sent Dobrescu a check for $500 American dollars, telling him to use it to help him get by. Dobrescu said that money was a “last resort,” and did not end up using it. When he sent it back to Doudiet, instead of putting the money back into the account, she opened an account in both their names and deposited the money into that account.
In 1990, Doudiet reached out to a United Methodist Church in New York. She told the church she would make a donation to them, provided they would sponsor Dobrescu to come to the United States. The church obliged, and that year Dobrescu found himself on American soil. He lived in North Carolina under sponsorship, and was able to attend college at the University of Arizona to study linguistics and Native American Anthropology.
In 1994 Dobrescu came to Castine to meet Doudiet for the first time. He would travel back a couple more times before her death, but they remained in contact between then.
“It didn’t matter if we saw each other every year, or even wrote each other every year,” he said. “The only time that wasn’t enough was when she was sick. We just knew our relationship was strong.”
Now in his 50s, Dobrescu continues to raise awareness about immigration through his story. He lives in Kentucky and works for the Internet department of Spectrum.
“I was lucky to create relationships along the way that ultimately led me here,” he said. “But the Wilson Museum, and Mrs. Doudiet, hold a very special place in my heart.”