Table of Contents
- Oana Sirboiu, Romania
- Life in Communist Romania
- An International Connection—and High School
- Coming to America
- Life in Berea
- Friends and Family
- Life After Berea
- Life Lessons
- Soneath Hor, Cambodia
- Faruk Pilav, Bosnia
- Suleiman Oko-Ogua, Nigeria
- Sheila Jichi, Lebanon/Sierra Leone/Nigeria
- Chinwe Kpaduwa, Nigeria/United States
- Sanjeewa Goonasekera, Sri Lanka
- Yilkal Enkuhawariat, Ethiopia
- Sumore Alemu, Ethiopia
- Nyima Yangzom, Tibet
- Tina Shrestha – Nepal/US
- Lina Stulpinaite, Lithuania
- Epilogue and Advice
Oana Sirboiu, Romania
I’m Oana (pronounced “wanna,” as in “wanna dance?”). I was born and raised in beautiful Romania, land of Dracula, Nadia Comaneci, and sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls—and you’re seriously missing out if you’ve never tried these Romanian delicacies). I came to the United States in 1997 to pursue a
Business Administration degree from Berea College, the #1 liberal arts college in the South and a unique private college noted for an extraordinary tuitionfree work-study education. After graduation, I obtained my MBA in Marketing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I later earned a certificate in Digital Media and Marketing from Duke’s online continuing education program.
I’ve learned some of my most important lessons, however, from living outside my comfort zone, traveling, and interacting with a wide range of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Since 2003, I’ve provided marketing services to B2B and B2C companies, both full time and as a consultant—all the while traveling as often as possible.
Whenever I say I’m from Transylvania, I usually hear a standard response: “ah, Dracula!” Although I grew up about an hour’s drive from the famed castle, known to us as Bran Castle, there’s so much more to the region and to my country that remains mostly unknown to people on this side of the pond. First: Transylvania (or Transilvania, as we spell it) is a region in Romania nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. Dracula is a fictional character created by an Irish writer—but Vlad Ţepes, the man behind the legend, was born in Transylvania and was a fierce 15th-century ruler of Wallachia, a territory south of Transylvania. Like many others in the 1400s, he fought off Ottoman invaders—and
quite effectively too! His punishment methods (including impaling invaders) were a bit harsh, but the Ottomans started it!
My hometown, Braşov sits in the western elbow of the Carpathians, a short drive over the mountains from our country’s capital, Bucharest (Bucureşti), which was once known as “little Paris” due to its beautiful interbellum architecture. Romania is the final destination of the great river Danube, which ends its eight-country-long voyage in the Black Sea, but not before forming the Danube Delta, one of the most biodiverse regions in Europe.
Very few people know that Romania is a Latin-root country. With ancestors like the Romans—thus the name of our country—who conquered the native Dacian land, our language is a part of the romance group, very closely related to Italian, borrowing many words from modern French, and similar to Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan. In fact, 80 percent of our language is based on Latin, with other influences from Slavic, Greek, Dacian, Turkish, German, and others.
Romania was a part of the communist Eastern Block but remained an independent country and was never part of the USSR. The infamous communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu rose to power in 1965; his rule ended with the bloody revolution of 1989 (televised live in the United States!). Under
Ceaușescu’s regime, our country endured the pains of “systematization”: Private property was confiscated by the government, and villagers were forced to move into cement block apartments, suffering many human rights injustices. After the revolution, our country began to recover economically by fostering an open-market and democratic environment.
Life in Communist Romania
I was born in the beautiful city of Braşov on a spring day in 1977, just a month after a terribly destructive earthquake devastated much of Bucharest. Luckily for us, Braşov is nestled in a valley and was somewhat sheltered from the center of the earthquake. My family was living in a communist-style concrete block apartment building on the ground floor and we quickly escaped from the building. My early days were earthshattering—but the rest of my childhood was very normal (or as normal as could be living under communist rule).
Growing up, I shared one of our apartment’s two rooms with my older brother Cristian (Cristi for short), which, as one might imagine, was challenging. We had two desks, one in the bedroom and one in the kitchen, where I studied most of the time. Both the kitchen and our only bathroom were very small by American standards—but I didn’t know that at the time. My mom was a teacher and my dad worked at an army depot. We were a normal middle-to-upper class family in Romania, where social standing was really dictated by education rather than by money.
My parents moved to the city when they were young, leaving behind the southern countryside by the Danube and the Bulgarian-Serbian border where they grew up, in search of better opportunities for the future. Braşov has always been a thriving city, even as far back as medieval times, when the metropolis was known for craftsmen and commercial trading. The old city is a beautiful cobble-stone maze of streets, lined with old homes with terracotta-shingled roofs. An ancient protective wall, guarded by four towers, still hugs the old city. Within a 20-minute drive, full of hairpin turns, from downtown Braşov up the mountain, is Poiana Braşov, a popular ski resort for all winter activities
but also for summer entertainment.
I lived in my hometown for the first 20 years of my life. Back in the day, people didn’t usually move around much, unless they were going to study at a university outside their town or if they found a job. Romanian children usually lived at home with parents until they went to school in another city or they married.
Although I was born in the communist era and grew up in the austere regime of Ceaușescu until the revolution of 1989 (he was executed—and I was 12), my childhood was great—despite the shortcomings and hardships associated with living in a communist country. As a child, you are not aware of all the evil around you and you don’t really miss what you never have. We played
outside and I loved running, climbing trees, playing pretend, biking, skating, or playing “gymnastics”—inspired by our country’s stellar professional gymnasts like Nadia Comăneci, Lavinia Milosovici, Simona Păucă, and Ecaterina Szabo.
We had social gatherings at friends’ homes, where parties involved a lot of dancing—my favorite! On weekends, families gathered and went to what we called “the green grass,” picnicking by the mountains close by. We hiked in the summer or went ice skating or skiing in the winter.
Growing up in communist Romania meant limited TV programming. There were two channels airing mostly propaganda about the wonderful potato crop—all while many people were starving. There were some good comedy and music programs, especially around Christmas time and on New Year’s Eve. On Saturdays, we also watched cartoons, mainly Tom and Jerry and Looney Toons,
and there were cartoons projected on the school wall for kids. Western-produced movies were usually not available and, if and when they were, they would be censored severely. We would often gather at friends’ homes for clandestine viewing of pirated VHS tapes. The movies would have their original English audio available, while a Romanian translator, Irina Nistor, would provide voiceover. I remember watching cool and taboo movies like Top Gun, Pretty Woman, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Nistor’s story was captured in the award-winning documentary Chuck Norris versus Communism. Her voice was a signature of those times. Interestingly, when she translated, there were many American
words translated as “damn it”; Nistor translated all curse words as “damn it.”)
Coming to America
I headed to the airport in Bucharest, armed with confidence and excitement, in the late summer of 1997. I don’t think that I fully realized what was happening. I don’t remember being sad or scared; I was really excited and curious. This was my first time flying, going from Bucharest to Chicago, and I had to be alert.
I looked outside the window during take-off, saw my beautiful homeland in the distance, and then floated above the clouds that looked like fresh fluffy snow. We stopped in Shannon, Ireland, to refuel, and we had a few minutes to explore the airport’s gift shop. I remember seeing the cutest arctic seal stuffed toy, and when I looked at the price, I couldn’t believe it. I kept translating all the prices into Romanian currency and I knew I couldn’t touch anything. Ireland’s coast was absolutely breathtaking! I remember the dramatic white cliffs, against a dark gray sky, bright emerald grass, and the ocean water smashing against the austere shore. I was living in a painting.
The airport in Chicago was nice and I kept trying to read all the signs to find my way to my next gate—but first I needed to make a quick pit stop. I kept looking for the “W.C.” or “Toilet” sign with no luck. Finally, I saw a lot of people going into a room labeled “Restroom” and I thought I’d take a look.
Maybe this is where tired travelers took naps? I realized quickly that the word was misleading.
Feeling relieved, I continued my quest for Terminal 1. Since I had arrived at Terminal 5, I thought I could just walk over, but I had to board a train. That blew my mind, as in Romania we took trains only to go from one city to another. I had about 2 to 3 hours to kill until my connecting flight, which was leaving at 8:30 p.m. I didn’t realize that there was a time difference between New York/
Lexington, Kentucky, and Chicago but I kept listening to the announcements to be sure I didn’t miss anything. I asked an older couple if they were also going to Lexington—and not only were they doing so but they were also seated next to me on the plane. We chatted and I drew on a napkin a map of Romania and its neighboring countries.
An hour and some minutes later, we landed in green and lush Lexington. My friend, Scott, was going to pick me up at the airport and take me to his hometown in Virginia for a few days. I hadn’t seen him in years and he was not wearing the glasses I remembered. I remember coming down the escalator, scanning the crowds for him. He was there, changed from Lasik surgery but recognizable. He asked me if I was tired. In true Romanian fashion, I sarcastically replied: “Nah, I haven’t slept in 30 hours but I’m fine.”
Soneath Hor, Cambodia
Soneath Hor defeated the odds and survived dodging bombs as a Cambodian refugee in the 70s and 80s. Through the kindness of United Nations workers, he found his way to the United States to fulfill his dream: to pursue an education. He graduated from Berea College in 2001 with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. After completing his graduate studies in Economic Development at Fordham University, Soneath has dedicated his career to helping underdeveloped countries as the Resident Representative of the IFC (International Finance Corporation), a part of The World Bank Group in Timor-Leste. He now lives in Washington, D.C., with his beloved wife, Pichchinda Sou, and his two daughters, whom he considers his biggest accomplishment.
Oana Harrison: Tell me about your life growing up in Cambodia.
Soneath Hor: I was born in a poor village in Svay Rieng province bordering Vietnam, inside a bunker, under a bamboo bush. My mother didn’t manage to give birth to me in our house like to my other three brothers, because my village was a target for mortar shells from both sides of the civil war conflict in the 1970s. According to my parents, as I was being born, three mortar shells landed some two hundred meters away.
The 70s were turbulent times, with Vietnamese communists seeking to expand their influence, and rebel groups like the Cambodian Khmer Rouge fighting against them. After controlling the country for a few years, the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979. This created a huge exodus of Cambodians to neighboring Thailand refugee camps, which is where my family and I lived for 13 years.
Sheila Jichi, Lebanon/Sierra Leone/Nigeria
Sheila Jichi came from a Muslim Lebanese family, but was born and raised in Africa, and attended a Christian school in English. Always aspiring to do more with her life than simply get married young like many of her friends, she studied hard and looked for opportunities to do more. Her school counselor mentioned Berea College as a good option for her. At 17, Sheila left home for the first time to pursue a degree in Business Administration from Berea College. She served as a Financial and Accounting Analyst for a few years before obtaining her MBA from Curry College in MA, where she also served as an Adjunct Professor. Although Lyme’s disease is now limiting her work to part-time, Sheila perseveres and hopes to soon be able to return to her full potential.
Oana Harrison: Tell me about your background and how you grew up.
Sheila Jichi: I was born in Sierra Leone to Lebanese parents, but I grew up in Nigeria. My grandparents on both my mom and my dad’s side left Lebanon in the 40s because of civil war and moved to West Africa, settling in Sierra Leone. My mom was born in Kenema, Sierra Leone and my dad in Kano, Nigeria. They met in Sierra Leone, got married at a young age, and moved to Benin
City, Nigeria, where my oldest sister was born. They then moved to Kenema, where I was born. Later on, my dad moved to Nigeria, where work was available.
My parents had large families—14 siblings between the two of them, and both families were fairly traditional and religious in the Islamic faith. They adapted well to the West African way of life, speaking the local languages, and they opened their own businesses in Sierra Leone and Nigeria.