A Refuge in Romania

by Jennifer Roberts

While volunteering on a farm in Voivodeni, a small Transylvanian village, Jennifer Roberts encounters an opinionated manager and makes a connection with two refugees fleeing the war in neighboring Ukraine.

Most of the front yard fences in Voivodeni are rusted, metallic contraptions, doing the job of keeping out stray dogs but allowing passersby to see inside – groups of wandering chickens, bits of scrap metal, colorful skirts hanging from clotheslines, rows of browning gardens, skinny dogs sniffing at the ground around their bowls. But the front yard fence that we stop in front of is different, a sturdy wall of shiny wooden planks over six feet tall.

“Here we are,” says our host, David, who, at first glance, also seemed over six feet tall with his broad shoulders, wide torso, and squared chin. During the car ride to the village, situated in the middle of Transylvania, we’d fallen into easy conversation and learned that he was Swiss, had fallen in love and married a Romanian woman years ago, and that he was the “black sheep” of his family. When I’d asked why, he’d chuckled and said simply, “It’s complicated.” 

As we walk into the front yard behind David, the wooden gate swinging shut behind us, he points to a boxy, two-story building off to the left and informs us that they usually rent the two apartments there out to vacation-goers, but they currently have guests staying in them.

“They are refugees from Kiev,” he says, lowering his voice to a whisper when he says “refugees.” 

I nod, saying something about looking forward to meeting them as I glance around at our temporary home. Behind the apartments and a shed holding firewood, I see the hostel where we’ll be staying – we’ll learn later that it’s a converted warehouse that previously held pallets of laminate flooring from our host’s other business, but business has been bad since the pandemic started, leaving the warehouse empty. We’ll be the only ones staying in the “hostel,” and the space is huge for two people. Upstairs, some of the leftover flooring – colorful laminate patched here and there with scenes from Marvel comics – contrasts with the gray floor and sofa of the downstairs common area. Outside the glass door is a pond, and beyond that is a fruit and vegetable garden, all green and growing, that extends to the back of the land. 

David’s wife has left food for us in the fridge, and he apologizes for forgetting that I was vegetarian. “Rest today. We can start tomorrow at 8AM, and please don’t be late.” Each host is different, and it seems David is more reliant on routine. 

We meet Sofia the next day when she comes out to help with some weeding in the garden. Her blonde curls fall heavily around her face, partially obscuring a large scar that extends across her cheek. She approaches and has her glove off and her hand extended before I’m even able to drop the shovel I’m holding. Her English is good, but she’s shy and doesn’t linger. Her mother, Vera, speaks only Russian, so our introduction is limited to polite nods and smiles. A couple of weeks later, I’ll venture to ask Sofia if she’d like to have a garden someday, and she’ll briefly tell me about the vegetables they grew behind their home in Kiev. 

A few days later, I’m helping David transplant trees when he says, unprompted, “I won’t argue about whose fault the war is, but the US shouldn’t have pushed the former Soviet countries to join NATO.” I nod, pursing my lips to swallow a half-formed retort. I don’t know him well enough to know if he’s trying to pick a fight or engage in a thoughtful debate, so I say nothing and continue digging.

The day after a series of Russian bombs fall on Ukraine in retaliation for the destruction of the only bridge linking Russia to Crimea, Vera is sitting outside listening to the Ukrainian news. She holds a pen and paper in her lap and is so focused on the noises coming from her phone that she doesn’t hear me approaching, only looking up when I pass directly in front of her. I smile, and she nods curtly before returning her gaze to the empty space in front of her, pen hovering in the air.

They’ve brought their cat with them to Romania, a fat, black thing that mostly lazes on the concrete patio outside their door. As the weeks pass, he starts to venture a bit further and one day fails to return until after dark, causing a panicked search that ends as he saunters up to the house of his own accord. During our final week, he manages to corner a mouse, the loose skin of his belly swinging back and forth as he paws at the small creature before eventually killing it. 

One evening, during a get together with some of David’s friends, I overhear him talking about his guests: “They can stay as long as they want. It’s 300 euros a month…each. I’m quite happy.” I knew the government was paying people a stipend for hosting refugees, but something in the way he says it finally tells me what kind of person he is. 

Before our time as volunteers is over, we use one of our days off to walk through the village. David has told us that in one of the fields just outside the village, you can still find World War II bullet shells. We walk past a small general store, punctuated with several old men huddled around a wooden picnic table, past rows of boxy houses that all seem to curve along a single small stream, past a long white estate house sitting behind an iron gate. We walk until the landscape is all green and rolling, but the field David referred us to could be anywhere, and we give up the search. 

Five weeks after arriving at the farm, it’s time for us to move on. I had told David I was a writer, and as he walks us to the front gate, he feigns shyness and says, “Maybe you can put me and our little farm in a story one day.” He stops at the gate, crossing his arms, waiting for an answer before he lets us out.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say, thanking him for the hospitality before we step outside the gate, which swings shut behind us, blocking everything hiding behind it.

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