A Passion for Culture and Language

Ana-Maria M’Enesti
Ana-Maria M’Enesti / The Immigrant Story

In the outskirts of Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second most populous city nestled in the heart of Transylvania, there stands an unfinished house. The house has been waiting, incomplete, for the last 28 years.

Ana-Maria M’Enesti was born in Cluj-Napoca in 1976, one of six children in her family. She grew up sharing a home with her grandparents, parents, three sisters, and two brothers in a residential neighborhood. They were a big family, but not much larger than typical Romanian families at the time. 

“It was a very dynamic and full house,” recalls M’Enesti with a chuckle.  

Growing up, children played games in the neighborhood together. They dribbled soccer balls on the ground of the historical city where Romans arrived more than 2000 years prior. 

M’Enesti was 14 during the Romanian revolution. After communism fell, she remembers an influx of students, languages, and new people from all over the world as Cluj-Napoca diversified and Romania transitioned toward democracy. 

Despite her upbringing during the communist period, M’Enesti remembers a relatively normal childhood, free of oppression. Government imposition was an accepted part of life. 

“I would hear and see and learn about imprisonments or things like that,” says M’Enesti, “but it didn’t affect me directly.”

There were food rations, but she felt like her family had enough resources. Walking in groups sometimes led to apprehension by the secret police for suspicious gathering. M’Enesti’s own grandfather was one of the first Protestants in the city. He was often followed and interrogated, a kind of persecution for not following the Orthodox Church.

But this did not seem strange to M’Enesti. “When you’re born in a certain environment, perhaps not having the comparison, you think things are okay,” says M’Enesti.

She remembers playfully mocking the system and president with other children, not realizing the implications of their actions. 

The collapse of communism in Romania was shocking, but also exciting as restrictions were replaced with new freedoms. 

M’Enesti’s favorite memories from childhood came after the revolution when it became easier to travel. She would visit the mountains with her parents and siblings, sometimes joined by friends and extended family. Laughter filled the open air as glowing faces shared meals and stories around the campfire. 

“This is one of my fondest memories, but it’s connected to family and childhood,” says M’Enesti. “It’s not really connected to the country itself.”

At the age of 19, the course of M’Enesti’s life would take an unexpected westward turn. Within a few months, her family would immigrate to the United States. 

“I’ll let you assess whether it was a decision or not,” she says, and then adds, “It was, in a way.”

One Sunday morning, M’Enesti’s mother received a phone call from acquaintances – originally from Cluj-Napoca – living in Portland. They said they wanted to add her family’s names to the visa lottery, part of the United States Diversity Visa (DV) program.

“So our friends just entered our names. We didn’t even know. My mom didn’t tell us because it was like a phone call, quick,” recalls M’Enesti. “And you know, we never won any lotteries.”

About three months later, a large envelope fell through the mail slot. The contents read “Congratulations Magdalena” – her mother’s name. M’Enesti’s family had won the DV Lottery.

“We couldn’t really believe it,” she says.  

With more uncertainty than enthusiasm, M’Enesti’s parents put the envelope aside. Space had grown scarce in her grandparents’ home, so they were building a new house for the family.

But M’Enesti and her sister were insistent, asking their parents to consider the opportunity. They began filling the forms out themselves, and eventually convinced the family to visit the embassy for an interview. Shortly after, M’Enesti’s family received the visa permissions to obtain green cards in the U.S. 

“We all said, ‘We’re going to go stay a few years, and then come back because our family was there,’” recalls M’Enesti. “In August 1995, we left, leaving our house unfinished.”

Upon arrival, M’Enesti expected the picture-perfect America she had dreamed of–the America she had seen on TV–but the reality was far different.

“The reality of working and struggling to pay rent, seeing my parents become kind of helpless because of language barriers,” M’Enesti says. 

She remembers the discrimination her parents faced in their neighborhood. When the dog would bark too much or her parents parked the car the wrong way, neighbors would call the police. 

M’Enesti was able to adapt more easily than her parents because she took language classes. School gave her a purpose and confidence to move forward. 

In Romania, M’Enesti had taken her first French class in the fifth grade and was immediately inspired by her teacher’s unique instruction, completely different from other Romanian classes. 

“The classroom was like a zoo, whereas in other classrooms, you’re supposed to sit at your desk and not move,” she recalls. 

Her combined educational experience in Romania and America led M’Enesti to pursue a career in languages and teaching. Today, she lives in Beaverton, Oregon and is a French language and culture instructor at Oregon State University. 

M’Enesti uses her passion for language and the human experience to connect with students, encouraging them to be uncomfortable, and leading with her own vulnerability. In her French courses, she thinks it’s crucial to focus not only on France, but also on its immigration history and diverse population.

Today, Romanian books can be found in M’Enesti’s home, where she speaks Romanian with her husband – a Romanian refugee who originally found political asylum in Canada – and her children. 

M’Enesti enjoys reading diaspora writings, as they reveal a new layer of perceiving the world. 

“These kinds of narratives that stem from a type of suffering seem enriching to me,” says M’Enesti. “They seem to be relatable.”

 As an immigrant, M’Enesti believes that being removed from a comfortable place requires finding survival methods. 

“That either destroys you, or makes you stronger,” says M’Enesti. 


This profile was written by Kera Nelson, a student for Professor Sindya Bhanoo’s journalism course at Oregon State University and was supported by an OSU Internationalization Grant.

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