by Sheila Brady, Guest Contributor
It was the end of June I was returning from my monthly trip to New York and was waiting for my Amtrak train in Penn Station, which was filled with not only Amtrak passengers, but Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit commuters as well. While standing in the midst of throngs of people, I was approached by a terrified young woman who said she had traveled three days from Romania and needed to be sure she was at the right gate to get the train to Utica.
I assured her that I was going to Utica, and would see to it that she got on the right train.
That’s the first of many times she referred to me as her guardian angel.
We sat together and I learned that she was in graduate school studying Marine Law.
Although her family was opposed to her coming to America, she convinced them that she would be part of a foreign student work program, and showed them the brochure from an agency in CA that offered to arrange for a four month visa, a job, housing, and promised travel and a wonderful cultural experience, all for a $3,000 fee.
She said her family gave her the money at great sacrifice, since the average salary in Romania is $300 per month.
I assumed she was going to Old Forge to work at Enchanted Forest, since they employ so many foreign students.
Then I told her that my brother had worked there fifty years ago when he was in college and that numerous nieces had also loved working there.
When I went on to tell her that she would meet students from all over the world, she interrupted and said she would not be working there, but somewhere else in the Adirondacks.
When we arrived in Utica we exchanged contact information, and I promised that we would pick her up for dinner, kayaking, hiking, etc., when she was available.
A month passed and I hadn’t heard from her, so I decided to drop by and leave a message for her at her workplace.
She called a few days later and was in great distress, and asked if we could pick her and another Romanian girl up for dinner.
That’s when we learned that they had been working for five weeks without a day off, were given money for groceries only, and did not have a bank account. If that wasn’t bad enough, we dropped them off at the run down trailer where they were being housed.
It was on a very dark road, so they were afraid to leave at night, and the trailer did not lock from the outside.
They also complained that it was infested with rodents, and for these dreadful living conditions they paid $400 a month each.
They told me that they did not like America and that although they were from an impoverished country, they knew no one who lived like this.
Considering that Romania was the most repressed of the Soviet bloc, and so much so that they actually shot to death one of their leaders and his wife without a trial, left me feeling horrible about their treatment here.
Some friends might say that I became obsessed with getting the girls out of there, and they would be right.
The girls felt that if they complained about their conditions they would be deported, so there was nothing that could be done. That’s when I called Dan Rivet and asked him about jobs in Old Forge.
Not being a man to waste time, he got back to me in about ten minutes and said he had spoken with Tim Noonan from Enchanted Forest, who offered jobs and housing to both girls.
They could start the next day.
The girls were thrilled and would pack that night to be picked up early in the morning.
We arrived at the trailer and both girls were packed, but only Florela would come with us.
The other girl was terrified; since she had borrowed the $3,000 for her work visa and had to be sure she could earn enough money to pay it back, and in addition, wouldn’t believe us when we said that she would not be deported for changing jobs.
We learned that her circumstances in Romania were much more harsh than Florela’s and she had reason to worry about paying back the loan.
I spoke with a friend in New York about her and she actually offered to pay the balance of the loan if the girl could not earn it out in Old Forge.
She refused and said she could not take charity, a decision she would later regret.
I walked around Old Forge early that morning with Florela and she said she felt like she was just released from a prison. She also told me that when I told her about Enchanted Forest on the train, it became her dream to work there.
Walking into the offices and being greeted warmly by Peter Pepper and the other staff was just what she needed, and when she saw her housing she was beaming.
I believe it was Katie Noonan who took care of the necessary paperwork for the agency she worried would deport her, and convinced her she had nothing to fear.
She met students from all over the world, and was taken on a trip to Niagara Falls, shopping excursions, and she finally had the experience she was promised in the brochure.
It’s the reason that Enchanted Forest gets some students to return year after year.
I know there are many other businesses in our area that also employ these workers and treat them well, so this is not an indictment on the business community.
Florela joined us for an opera and openings at View. She charmed our family and friends, enjoyed dinner parties, learned to kayak, and we found our time with her to be pure joy.
One of her favorite experiences was with Deke and Carol Morrison, who hired her to help with some housekeeping. They invited her to stay for dinner, which was not only a huge surprise to her, but she thoroughly enjoyed discussing their political points of view, which she reminded me were just slightly to the right of mine.
This was the experience I wished for her and other foreign students who come here.
The New York Times had numerous articles about the foreign student guest worker program and its abuses.
Some students pay up to $5,000 to work in this country for a summer and are not monitored by the agencies who receive these huge fees.
They are afraid to complain about their conditions for fear of deportation and disgrace to their families.
Florela went back to Romania with a positive opinion about America, but sadly her friend did not.
Had I not met her in Penn Station, she might have shared her friend’s point of view, and she would have been right.