During his precious 16 days in the United States, most of it in Omaha, a young visitor from Romania is hoping to absorb as much Americana as he can.
So Nicolae-Daniel Naste’s to-do list includes going to a Husker game, visiting the Henry Doorly Zoo and ordering a steak.
But I’d like to think that the most American thing this 21-year-old engineering student will do is to give of himself.
Nicolae-Daniel, who goes by “Dani,” spent two days last week working side by side with Americans his age, helping build houses on a stretch of North 37th Street.
As Dani held a long two-by-four wood brace, Tylilla from North Carolina, Gilbert from the Bronx, Jerry from California, Alyse from Michigan and others raised the 45-foot-long north wall of a Habitat for Humanity house. The organization is building three houses on the street and rehabbing another.
Tylilla, Gilbert, Jerry and Alyse are with America’s domestic Peace Corps, called AmeriCorps. They volunteer for nearly a year to communities that need help. What they get in return is not unlike the experience Dani will have in Omaha: soaking up a different place and different people and being transformed because of it.
Dani was hammering and holding, sweeping and lugging, sweating and hustling as a way to say thank you to a group of Omahans who gave him this once-in-a-lifetime-trip.
Back in April, about a dozen Omahans went to Romania to help build houses north of a city called Cluj-Napoca, or Cluj for short. Dani lives in Cluj. He goes to college in Cluj.
He volunteers for just about everything in Cluj. Film festivals. Art festivals. And Habitat for Humanity, where he started out as the plant-waterer and graduated to assistant volunteer coordinator in a place where the word “volunteer” has unfavorable connotations to forced labor.
The new title that meant Dani would be liaison to a dozen people from Omaha, where “volunteer” meant happily choosing to slog around in a rain-soaked worksite.
Dani’s first task was getting the Omahans from Budapest, Hungary, where their plane landed, to Cluj, about a seven-hour drive.
For us, that’s like a trip from Omaha to Chicago or Denver — a tank or two of gas or a $200 plane ticket.
For Dani, it’s unthinkably expensive. The dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, during his totalitarian reign from 1965 to 1989, kept Romanians from leaving. Now that the borders were open, the lack of money was the new Ceausescu, keeping Dani in.
Until the Omahans came.
Dani traveled to Budapest to pick them up, the first time he had crossed the Romanian border.
Eager to make a good impression, Dani showed up an hour early and waited outside the Omahans’ hotel, worrying and wondering.
Until out came white-haired, affable Don Browers of Omaha, who struck out his hand and said: “Hi. I’m Don.”
Then came the others with the same loud voices, the same good-spirited cheer, the same desire to spend their days in a foreign land helping strangers.
This really touched Dani. He knew American culture from a childhood spent absorbing TV shows and movies, all in English. But he was surprised at how different the group was, how well they seemed to get along and how singular they were in mission, uniting around a common cause.
“They were amazing!” Dani said later. “They just came to say, ‘Hello,’ and ‘Yeah, we want to work.’ ”
To Dani, they were diverse: in age ranging from 9 to 73; in occupations; in personalities. It amazed him they all got along.
The Romania of Dani’s past fought on both sides of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Roma people, then called gypsies, were targeted for their differences and were killed. A military dictatorship, a Soviet occupation and then the long reign of communist Ceausecscu kept Romania a closed society.
Even though Dani was born after all that, even though he sees Africans and Asians at the medical school in Cluj, for the most part his world is light-skinned, dark-haired people whose chief difference is generational — those who lived under a repressive government and those who lived in freedom.
It’s not as if the Omahans, nor the larger group of Americans working for a week in Romania, looked like a Benetton ad. The sole black person on the Omaha trip, 50-year-old Negil McPherson, said he was such a foreign sight that people stared, and one Romanian woman actually came up to him and rubbed his face.
For help understanding this, I turned to Mihaela Kobjerowski, who explained that the country was so closed for so long that the fall of the Iron Curtain meant open borders. That also meant a bit of a population drain, of which she is a part.
Kobjerowski was the Omaha volunteer who spent half her 45 years in Romania. She said they were fed propaganda about Americans but otherwise thought little of them, much like we consider the possibility of life on other planets:
“We think it likely exists,” she said, “but we think of (Americans) like little green creatures.”
That changed in 1993, when Kobjerowski served as the liaison for a group of professors from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who went to Romania to help new small businesses.
Those UNO professors made such a profound impression that Kobjerowski came to the United States, where she felt she could finally breathe.
She landed in Omaha and cried on her first Christmas because there was so much of everything.
“My favorite part about living here is the fact I learned a lot more about tolerance and the fact people can have very different opinions, very different cultural backgrounds,” Kobjerowski said. “(In Romania) everybody looked like me, spoke like me, talked like me.”
When Kobjerowski returned to Romania for the Habitat for Humanity trip, she saw in Dani a younger version of herself.
The rest of the Omahans were so enamored with their young guide they invited him to visit.
Dani thought the gesture was nice but figured it would never happen.
But Don Browers, Mihaela Kobjerowski and the other Omahans paid Dani’s way. Kobjerowski helped Dani navigate U.S. and Romanian bureaucracies to get him a passport and visa. The day Dani got his travel visa, he posted a picture on Facebook with this caption: “The happiest day of my life.”
I caught up with Dani at what will be 6312 N. 37th St.
He worked alongside Browers, the first American he had ever met. He worked alongside his American peers, fellow 20-somethings working for the National Civilian Community Corps, a branch of AmeriCorps. They included:
» Tylilla Lovett, a 23-year-old black woman from Asheville, N.C., who described the “awesome feeling” of helping others.
» Gilbert Howard, a 24-year-old black man from the Bronx, N.Y., who said service work was “an amazing experience.”
» Jerry Kim, a 25-year-old Korean-American from Riverside, Calif., who plans to go to Peru to teach English.
» Alyse Cheyne, a 20-year-old white woman from Hudsonville, Mich., who said the work is giving her life direction.
Together, they lugged wood forms. They hammered plywood and two-by-fours. They put up some walls.
And I was struck, watching this, of something Tracie McPherson, Negil’s wife, told me about home construction.
“It’s not about building up walls,” said McPherson, who works for Habitat for Humanity. “It’s about tearing walls down.”
Walls like international borders. Walls like not enough money. Walls like fear of the other.
We know America has a ways to go on these fronts.
Yet if this is America’s promise, then after these two days in north Omaha, what more is there, really, for Dani to see?