“Among the Few” is documenting the life of minorities in Romania, whether they are ethnic, religious, racial or sexual. It’s a close-up look into the every day life of those who don’t find themselves in the majority, a majority who often decides for everybody.
This project also becomes an opportunity to get to know those different from us, but so similar at the same time. Because, beyond the nexus to a certain race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, we are all people with feelings, experiences, aspirations and the hope for a free and tolerant society.
Episode 1 | Ahmed
The coffee machine whirs as the hot, brown liquid pours into a paper cup. The coffee steam shyly mixes with the cigarette smoke, and Ahmed pulls once more from his Marlboro Gold. Under bushy black eyebrows, his gaze wanders through the window, staring absently at something in the car wash’s yard. As countless times before, his thoughts carry him far away, to the family he left behind in his native country, in Syria.
Ahmed Khalid arrived in Romania on October 8th, 1993, at the age of 28, to study. He had graduated from the University of Psychology in Damascus, followed by a two-year master’s degree. For a year he taught at the university there, then he was fired. “For political reasons, of course,” says Ahmed. He thinks someone with a grudge against him denounced him to the intelligence services. “They fired me from all positions and pushed me to leave. You had two choices at the time: either you left or prison awaited you.”
For the first two months, he spent eighteen hours a day learning Romanian, with the English-Romanian, Romanian-English and English-Arabic dictionaries. The woman that rented him a room in her apartment thought he was going crazy, he wouldn’t even come to eat. But after two years, he knew 75% of the language, written and spoken.
A vehicle enters the car wash. Ahmed puts out his cigarette and gets up to greet his client. He steps heavy into his rubber boots. His thin body, shaped by physical work and stress, seems to carry an invisible weight.
He has owned a car wash on Colentina Road for four years now. Before, he had another on Vasile Lascăr which was doing better. He has been working alone most of the time, due to lack of personnel. He hasn’t had a day off in four years.
That was not his dream. “Years passed in Romania while I have achieved absolutely nothing,” says Ahmed with grief. “It was and will continue to be very painful for me. I didn’t come here to do business or to run tricks, or smuggle. I’m not made for this. No, absolutely not. I was made to be a teacher.”
Ahmed believes that he had no chance to be a teacher in Romania. “No, no and no, three times no”, says Ahmed with conviction, recalling the meeting with the head of the psychology department at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, when he wanted to enrol in a doctorate programme. The discussion went sideways and Ahmed was invited to get out. He left with a very bitter taste, as he told himself that he stood no chance. He finished his doctorate, under the guidance of another professor, whom he greatly appreciated. But he did not become a teacher in his turn. He was left with the car wash.
The face that reads an old fatigue sketches a smile to the new customer. Ahmed questions him if he wants inside / outside and gets to work. The car briefly disappears under the white foam, then reappears under the gush of cold water. The cloths move vigorously in Ahmed’s hands, absorbing the last drops of water. “Until next time” says Ahmed with a goodbye smile.
Ahmed’s days flow one after another, many of them like xerox copies of the same sheet. They start in the morning at the carwash and end late in the evening, at the carwash. The differ by the number of cars that cross its threshold. When it rains, he has some time to catch his breath.
Sometimes, Syrian friends come over to drink a coffee with Ahmed and talk about what’s going on in Syria. One day a painter, another day a doctor, another day an entrepreneur, another day two or more of them. Ahmed also made Romanian friends, but they don’t visit him that often.
The phone rings. Ahmed’s niece’s young, hijab-framed face appears on the screen. She calls from Ma’arat al-Nu`man, in Idlib province, the place where Ahmed was born and raised, about eighty kilometers from Allepo. They’re talking about what’s new at school, about the rest of the family, and the bombings. The situation in Syria and the fact that his family is trapped there bears heavy on Ahmed.
It has gotten dark. Ahmed says goodbye to the last customer and closes the car wash’s gate. For the last couple of months, he hasn’t left at night either. Three years ago, his wife, Elena, packed everything, took their two girls and left home. Now, Ahmed is sleeping on a mattress, in a small house in the car wash yard, among boxes, bags and some clothes he brought with him. An old electric radiator slightly defrosts the cold air. A kettle is plugged in a corner. He lights another Marlboro Gold and opens a book, awaiting to fall asleep.
“Since 2016 I have no , I wrote some articles, I should have finished a book, I didn’t have the time… With the continuous stress with my family in Syria and with the family here, with work, how things are, there was mo way. The last four years have gone badly for me, from all social, economic, family, political and mental points of view.“
Episode 2 | Victor
Perched on a chair, Victor struggles to scrub the metal top of the kitchen hood, fighting another battle in the war against any trace that shows he had cooked in this kitchen. It’s Tuesday, mid-March, and, as on most days of the week during this period, Victor’s time is divided between writing his master’s dissertation and working around the house. It was also on a Tuesday, almost thirty-two years ago, when Victor increased by one the number of inhabitants from Moșna village, Iași county. In 1987, when he was born, homosexuality was punished by law, with people risking years in prison for their sexual orientation. “I ignored the law and was born gay,” says Victor.
He was born and raised in a “traditional” family in the countryside, not very numerous – he lived with his parents and a brother from his mother’s first marriage – and not very religious. He was baptised a Christian, as was the custom, but his family did not go to church much at the time. He discovered his interest in religion on his own. After learning to read in the first grade, one of the first books he read was the Bible. That’s because he had little choice, and the bible was received from those who went door to door with the spiritual awakening through the 1990s. He had also started going to church.
Around the same time, he was beginning to understand that he was different. In what way, he could not tell at the age of seven. On the village streets, one of the common games was playing mom and dad. Several children were gathered and families were formed. They imitated what they knew from home: the father gave orders, the mother cooked, then they laid in bed at night. Victor also took part in these games, but he did not feel comfortable about it. “I never found myself in these role-playing games, mom, dad, I’m the man, you’re the woman,” Victor remembers twenty-five years later. “Since then I knew I was different.“
He did open the subject with anyone. Bible verses spoke of people being stoned to death for this “sin.” He told himself that this “unnatural” attraction must change. At the age of fourteen, he was baptised in the Adventist church, out of conviction and despite opposition from family, teachers, or friends. He had already decided to attend theological high school and become a pastor. At the age of fourteen, Victor also knew he was gay. For the next ten years, he hasn’t talked about it.
“I waited for God to change me.” For God, the one he believed in and who condemned homosexuality, it should have been a piece of cake to change this thing that he didn’t like about Victor. Especially since he, Victor, wanted to please God. “I also tried to lend a helping hand to God somehow,” says Victor with a smile, “through my attempts to have relationships with girls.” He didn’t fall in love with any girl, no matter how hard he tried. He went through high school and the theology university, waiting for the change.
He fell in love for the first time at the age of 27. He thought he was somewhat incapable of loving a person of the same sex. “The moment I fell in love, it was: Wow, there really is nothing wrong, there is nothing to condemn in the fact that I love someone. If someone is strictly thinking of the sexual relationship, he loses what is essential, the fact that you love, or nobody can deny that this is one of the most, there may be others, but for me it is the noblest feeling in life: to love, to be loved. That freed me, the fact that I fell in love”, says Victor and his eyes twinkle with joy and emotion.
The relationship with Florin helped him open up to other people. He started making his coming out with friends and close people. In the summer of 2017, he went home to Mosna to tell his mother. He stayed for five days and every day he postponed the moment. Twenty minutes before the his bus was leaving, with his luggage packed, he mustered up the courage to tell her he was gay.
He made his public coming out during the campaign for the family referendum. “It’s then I decided to talk about myself as both a gay person and a Christian and a citizen of Romania. If it weren’t for all the miserable things that have been poured into the public space, by politicians, by priests, by various influencers, things that I personally felt as unfair, I would still be in my comfort zone”, says Victor.
With each coming out, Victor feels more and more free. Each of them means he can be himself, no more hiding, with yet another person or group of people. He can admit he is going out with his boyfriend, without having to invent other stories. It feels liberating for him.
Victor believes in the change for the better, but that does not mean that, day in and day out, he is not facing the inherent effects of a homophobic society. That when he goes out on the street he has no hesitation in holding his partner’s hand, for fear of being assaulted. That when he goes down to breakfast from his hotel room he is spared from hearing the waiter’s unsolicited opinions about homosexuals. That such moments would probably be more frequent if he had not taken precautions to prevent such situations. “These things get to me.”
“However, I believe that the most concrete cases where I face the negative effects of homophobia on a personal level are those that stem from the fact that the state does not provide the legislation needed to protect our rights as a family,” says Victor.
At thirty-two, Victor is waiting for the yet another change. This time, not his own, but the change of our mentality as a society. Of this country and its legislation. He is feeling optimistic.
Episode 3 | Albert
The warm light of a July sunset caresses his face, half-covered by a reddish beard and sunglasses, while Albert Veress sips from a pint of beer. It is the local Csíki Sör beer, Igazi Csíki Sör by its full name – or, in translation, “the real Ciuc beer”.
Albert is of Hungarian ethnicity and was born in 1981 in one of the cities of Romania that bears its name in two languages, Miercurea Ciuc / Csíkszereda. It is the place where he grew up and the one he would never want to leave. “I have always liked to live in Ciuc, I never wanted to move elsewhere or to another country. I think I could call it a kind of local patriotism. I wanted to contribute something here,” he says.
Raised in a family of doctors, with an older step-sister who followed the same path, the expectations were that Albert would go to medical school. But when he was a sophomore at the Hungarian high school Márton Áron, in a chemistry-biology class, he enrolled in the school’s theatre company. He just loved it. He had artistic inclinations ever since he was a child and took piano lessons, so he decided to go to acting school. “My father tried to explain to me that as a doctor I could play theatre, but as an actor I couldn’t be a doctor,” Albert recalls with a laugh.
He went to college in Targu Mures. Out of love for his hometown, he did not want to continue at the Hungarian theatres in Cluj or Sfantu Gheorghe and returned home, to the newly established theatre in Miercurea Ciuc. “It was something new, we were all full of enthusiasm to do theatre here, so I really liked it, a lot.”
Albert believes that “living as a Hungarian in Miercurea Ciuc is very easy,” compared to other cities such as Targu Mures or Cluj, where it is much harder. “We don’t have this problem maintaining our identity. Because we are among ourselves, it is not difficult to maintain it”, says Albert. In Miercurea Ciuc, almost 82% of the inhabitants are of Hungarian ethnicity. “But, for example, my friend from Timisoara, if he wants his daughter to go to [Hungarian] folk dance classes, he already doesn’t have much of a choice, he has to come here.”
He goes on to explain that it feels sad for him to meet Hungarian friends from Petrosani, Maramures or other places, where “I see that they are losing their identity, I see that something is dying.”
For him, this loss is an effect, still present, of the process of Romanian-isation of the Hungarians started during the communist era. “There are people with Hungarian names who do not speak a word in Hungarian. His grandfather was a true-born Hungarian and now he doesn’t know what he is. He doesn’t even know how it happened. He did not want to be Romanian, it’s that he was the only Hungarian out of hundreds of mine workers and maybe he married a Romanian woman and spoke to everyone in Romanian and his son went to a Romanian school in Romanian because there no longer was a Hungarian school there. And that’s all there is to it. And that’s sad.“
In his personal life, he has never had direct problems due to ethnic discrimination. He grew up with the indirect effects, they were a kind of normalcy. He says that, indeed, they have decreased over the years and now it is getting better, but this is also because “we fought a lot, for rights, for language, for schools.”
“It’s a continuous battle for us. For example, to write the name of Miercurea Ciuc in Hungarian, Csíkszereda, it took us I do not know how many years. And what is this? A trifle. It’s nothing, just something symbolic, isn’t it? Why was it so hard? What was the mentality behind holding this back? Who does it bother?”
Albert is proud to be Hungarian because, he says, he has a history behind him. He would also like to feel proud of being a Romanian citizen, this time for reasons related to the present. But… „if Romanians would not have a bad reputation in the West, if Romania had a good tourism, if we had intelligent politicians who can tie two sentences one after the other… This is our general problem, as Romanian citizens, with our politicians, with our corruption.”
He cheers for Halep in tennis and the Romanian team in football, although he is not a football fan. “But football is not a good example, because Hungary in football is so bad,” he says with a laugh.
What Albert lacks, as a Hungarian minority, to become proud of his Romanian citizenship, is to be treated like a Hungarian who has every right to be here and for the Romanian state to publicly apologise for all the deeds committed in Romania against various minorities.
“How nice it would be if I here, just as the Hispanic who lives in America, were proud to be Romanian and I would like to hang out the Romanian flag [at home]. How nice would that be!”
According to recent polls, Romania is still a pretty homophobic and xenophobic society. The fear of difference manifests itself in a high level of mistrust, especially in homosexuals (74%), Roma (72%), immigrants (69%), Muslims (68%), people with HIV AIDS (58%), people of other religion (58%), Hungarians (53%) and Jews (46%). The social distance scale indicates a high intolerance towards homosexuals (59% do not accept them as relatives, 52% do not accept them as friends), immigrants (39% do not accept them as relatives, 30% do not accept them as friends ), Muslims (39% do not accept them as relatives, 28% do not accept them as friends), persons belonging to other religious sects (31% do not accept them as relatives, 23% do not accept them as friends) and persons HIV / AIDS infected (27% do not accept being relatives, 23% do not accept being friends).
Cover illustration by Andreea Chirica.