Foiled by police during his first attempt to escape communist Romania two years ago, Nicolae Risnoveanu was convinced that he would be killed if he tried again and failed. He believed the horror stories he heard back in his hometown of Contanta.
One of his neighbors who had tried to escape was captured and beaten so badly by Romanian border guards that he had to have a kidney removed. But he lived.
Those caught trying to breach the border a second time would certainly not be spared, Risnoveanu told himself while under guard on a train soon after his own capture. He had swum across the Danube at night to Yugoslavia and, on the advice of villagers there, turned himself over to the police. But the police bused him back to Romania, where he was charged with attempting to leave the country without permission.
Now 29 and living in Alhambra, Risnoveanu still remembers the beatings he suffered when he was returned to Romania. The guards skillfully avoided hitting his face, instead pummeling his vital organs through the body.
But Risnoveanu never let go of his dream to be reunited with his younger brother Julian, a former world-class wrestler who defected during a 1986 competition in Greece and eventually settled in Alhambra.
As he sat handcuffed on the train with another prisoner and a guard, Risnoveanu kept his mind on freedom. And when the train slowed down to approach a station, he persuaded the guard, who had been eyeing the gold chains Risnoveanu was wearing, to remove the tight handcuffs that had restricted his blood circulation and turned his hands purple. Then, when the guard looked away for a moment, Risnoveanu made his move. He clambered through a train window, bruising himself in the desperate scramble.
A split second before he leaped from the moving train, Risnoveanu turned and saw a stunned expression on the face of his fellow prisoner. He could tell that the man longed to follow him, but the man didn’t budge.
The rough landing added to the bruises on Risnoveanu’s body, but there were no broken bones. When the guard realized what had happened, he made a commotion, yelling after Risnoveanu, then shooting at him as he ran into the woods.
On June 23, 1988, after a trek marked by hunger, a near drowning during a second swim across the Danube River and 10 months in an Austrian refugee camp, Risnoveanu embraced his brother Julian in a joyous reunion at Los Angeles International Airport.
Talked of Escape
“For me, it was an important moment,” said Nicolae Risnoveanu, who first talked to his brother about an escape nine years ago when they were both living in Contanta. “I waited for this moment for a long time.”
Julian Risnoveanu said that at the airport his brother’s face reflected his ordeals. He “looked like a man who had been through a lot,” he said.
Now, nine months later, Nicolae glows with health and optimism. His face bears little resemblance to the gaunt, bushy-haired young man whose picture appears on his refugee documents.
He lives with his brother and sister-in-law, Sherrie Wang Risnoveanu, in their Alhambra condominium and is still a bit awed by his new surroundings.
“For me it was something like a dream,” Nicolae said, recalling the skyscrapers he saw in downtown Los Angeles. “Everything here is huge.”
The two brothers have started a part-time home remodeling business, using skills they learned from their stepfather. They hope to earn their contractors’ license so that they can bid on bigger contracts.
They miss their family in Romania, but not the government there.
Julian, 27, said that as a former champion wrestler in Romania, he enjoyed privileges and travel opportunities that the average Romanian could only dream about. But he said he risked it all because life under a socialist government was stifling.
“I just hated the system,” he added. “You can’t speak anything.” People did not even dare to speak frankly with friends, he said, because “you don’t know what your friends are.”
People confide in family members only “if you trust them,” Nicolae said.
The brothers still remember watching teachers whack their students with rulers because the youngsters had been caught attending church.
“In socialism there is no membership in church,” Julian said. “You’re supposed to educate yourself, not waste your time on church.”
“It’s like a cage,” Julian said of his life in Romania. “I always felt trapped.”
After Julian defected in 1986, the government demoted his stepfather, a painter-remodeler, and fired Nicolae from his job of driving trucks.
Blacklisted by the government, Nicolae began planning his escape. He ran and swam daily to get in shape, training clandestinely so as not to arouse suspicion.
That training came in handy, especially during his second try across the Danube River, when his left leg became temporarily paralyzed from exhaustion. He panicked and went under 12 times, gulping more water each time, but eventually he reached the Yugoslav side by swimming mainly with his arms.
Before he entered the water, Nicolae tied his clothes around his waist, but during his close call in the river he was forced to shed them. He kept warm that night by doing push-ups and running in place. An elderly woman gave him food and clothing; he gave her a gold necklace.
Staved off Hunger
This time around he knew better than to turn himself in to Yugoslav police. It took him several weeks to walk and hitchhike his way to the Austrian border, keeping to the forest whenever possible and fending off hunger by foraging for berries and raiding village gardens.
Meanwhile, in Alhambra, Julian was frantic with worry. He knew his brother must have begun his escape, but over the telephone, their mother dared not say a word about it.
“I couldn’t even sleep,” Julian recalled.
On a cold, rainy night, when he noticed the border guards staying in their stations to keep dry, Nicolae inched his way through the dark into Austria.
Throughout his ordeal, he was sustained by a desire to be with his brother, whom he considers his best friend.
Julian, describing his brother as his second half, said that if anything had happened to Nicolae, “a part of me would die.”
Another brother, 19-year-old Daniel, is still back in Contanta with their parents, Ann and George. Daniel has also tried to escape from Romania, but he was captured by authorities and sent back home. He too was beaten and, as a result, still has only partial use of his right leg.
Free to Criticize
As Alhambra residents, Nicolae and Julian delight in their freedom. If you want, you can even criticize the mayor, Julian marveled.
The brothers also relish working in the United States. “Here you work for yourself,” Nicolae said. When he was working as a truck driver in Romania, he said, he was forever checking his watch for quitting time. Now he often puts in 18-hour days yet feels that the day flies by too quickly.
“We don’t even have time to sleep,” said Julian. “To achieve our goals we have to work hard.”
For both, the goal is to get their contractors’ license and make a good living. They bask in simple pleasures such as having heat in the winter and electricity anytime they want.
Neither is a stranger to hard work. When he is not out working on remodeling jobs, Nicolae pores over his English-language books.
“It doesn’t matter how tired I am, I study,” he said.
When Julian arrived in California two years ago, he worked almost around the clock at two jobs, parking cars and installing storm windows. Sharing an apartment with other refugee immigrants, he soon saved enough money to send some to his brother in the Austrian refugee camp.
Julian, still muscular from his wrestling days, said that at one point he applied for a professional wrestling job, but the work didn’t suit him. It was fake wrestling done just for show, he said.
He now works as a card dealer in a Bell Gardens casino. He and his wife, Sherrie, also a dealer there, work from 4 a.m. to noon.
But while his wife goes to bed at 6 p.m., Julian often stays up late to handle paper work for the remodeling business, sometimes getting by with only three hours of sleep a night.
“He’s a hard worker,” his wife said. “He knows what he wants, exactly. He tries to make it, that’s important.”
An immigrant from Taiwan, Sherrie said she never had to go through the type of struggle her husband and brother-in-law endured.
“I admire them,” she said. “They have perseverance.”
Julian and Nicolae said they know that if they work hard, they will make it in their new country. “It’s not a perfect world in America,” Julian said. “But it’s definitely the country that offers you the most choices.”