“Investing in students is the best thing we can do as a society. That’s the reason why we have the ORCA student grant. My biggest regret – that we can’t give a grant to every student who applies.”
Bogdan Stănescu, Founder of ORCA
Huddled together, forming a barrier against the bitter wind and blowing snow, the shivering carolers rehearse their first number on the front porch. Dressed in the traditional Romanian folk blouse and dark bottoms, the members of the Ontario Romanian Canadian Association (ORCA), are resolute in carrying on this ancient tradition of caroling door to door despite the chilling weather. In Romania, their perseverance may have been rewarded with a few slices of homemade cozonac, maybe even some pocket change or ţuica. In Canada, their reward is a check, written out to support a very special cause.
They step inside, gathering around Raluca Vulpe, who transformed a group of patriotic immigrants into a harmonious vocal ensemble in record time. Listening to their voices sing complicated renditions of Christmas songs, no one would believe they started this ensemble just a few years ago. With bright eyes, they zealously sing while I stand aside and search their faces, wondering if their separation from our homeland’s culture was as painful as my own. Since their immigration, has Christmas brought about waves of nostalgia as it has in my heart, or has it always been this merry?
As a child, leaving Romania to settle in Canada was akin to the death of a loved one. The first few days of shock gave way to a gut-wrenching period of mourning and finally, a dull ache finding eternal rest in a fragile heart. Sometimes, in the early hours of dawn, blissful confusion would reign, allowing innocent joy to be restored until the painful realization of being far from the gentle caresses and familiar scents of my childhood glee.
Over time, the heartache slowly dissipated, rearing its ugly head less and less frequently. Yet even into my adult years, as a perfectly integrated Canadian, the hauntingly sad song of the morning dove or a golden ray of sunlight seeping through my bedroom window at dusk would awaken an aching nostalgia, a longing for a motherland I no longer knew.
Christmas was always the hardest, mostly because the rich smell of sarmale, methodically rolled to the sweet sounds of Madrigal or Stefan Hrusca, seemed to whisper that I was not ‘Home’ for the holidays.
Suddenly, my thoughts are interrupted by a few taps on the shoulder. It’s Mihai Iacob gently offering me the choir’s song book. I reluctantly part with my dark musings and follow this tranquil man to the edges of the group. Mihai is the vice-president of ORCA and a social media guru who quietly sees all the missing pieces, never losing sight of even the smallest detail.
He moved to Toronto with his family when he was 18, in 2001, just days after 9/11. Aside from the soldiers who ruffled through his bags at the airport and some occasional boredom in his high school classes, his move to Canada was positive, bringing with it a sense of excitement and newness. He had no broken heart and very little nostalgia.
By 2012, he recognized that something was missing from his life in Canada. He attended one of the first ORCA planning meetings and came up with the idea of forming a young adults group within ORCA.
“I had a very small circle of Romanian friends, but I realized that it was with fellow Romanians that I really connected in a meaningful way. We created ORCA Youth, so Romanians could connect and build friendships. And beyond just socializing, we came up with projects to benefit the Romanian community in Toronto. You see the best in each other when you are helping others”
Being the quiet leader he is, Mihai instantly took on the behind the scenes work of organizing events, managing ORCA’s growing Facebook group and carefully keeping track of old memberships while attracting new ones. The reward for his hard work was meeting Veronica Iacob, now his wife, at an ORCA event.
As the choir energetically performs their final song, their echoing voices generate a cheerful hum in my ears. Then we spill over to the kitchen table to indulge in the Romanian goodies that have been laid out, the dizzying smell of cârnaţi undoubtedly luring us over. Mihai heads in the opposite direction, towards Bogdan Stănescu, the president and founder of ORCA as well as the host. His home was the first one on the caroler’s list this wintery evening.
Bogdan is writing a generous check at his desk, which Mihai happily accepts while mentally calculating the new total of ORCA’s student grant. The routine is similar in every home the choir visits: sing; eat; accept check; move on to another home to repeat the cycle.
My attention turns to Bogdan, whose kind and humble expression belies his successful business career and unimaginable hardship.
He moved to Toronto in 1975, at the age of 17. Since his paternal grandmother was Jewish, she was granted permission to leave Romania and settle in Toronto, Canada. Bogdan – her grandson – along with his mother, father and dog landed on Canadian soil some years later.
Like Mihai, Bogdan was thrilled about his move to Toronto, leaving little room for nostalgia and mourning. The mourning and heartache would come later – yet the eulogy would not be for his homeland.
Thanks to his athletic abilities, he immediately found success on the high school soccer team, which he led to the provincial finals. Without any prior knowledge of English, he completed Canadian high school requirements and secured a soccer scholarship at UCLA. However, his stars did not align. One week after arriving in California, Bogdan had a serious soccer injury, forcing him to return to Toronto. Back in Toronto, he enrolled in the Computer Science and Physics program at the York University.
In order to pay his tuition, Bogdan worked as a bartender on the airport strip, working late hours and making more money than he knew what to do with. He cut a deal with his friends. If they would take notes for him in the morning classes, he would give them free food and drink in the evening.
He knew he had to focus more on his studies, but first he had to pay for them. It was this very dilemma that inspired him to introduce the ORCA Student Grant many years later.
After graduating from York, Bogden went to work at IBM in the years when home computers had rubber keyboards and their processing power was similar to that of today’s cheapest cell phone. He married a Canadian woman, Irene, with whom he had two daughters. Tragically, when his daughters were 3 and 1, Irene lost her life to a painful battle with cancer. Finding himself a young widower with two daughters, Bogdan’s life became a difficult balance of work and playing tea party with his girls.
Immensely frustrated with the health care system which had let his family down, Bogdan promised himself to one day create a company that would help ailing Canadians navigate the confusing world of specialists, doctors and hospitals. After 30 years at IBM, Bogdan stayed true to this promise and together with his new wife Angela started Medical Confidence.
When asked if he ever felt nostalgia for Romania over the years, his response was very much like himself – pragmatic:
“I love Canada, and I love visiting Romania from time to time, I love the countryside. But I don’t have a lot of family in Romania and when I moved to Canada, I knew that I was going to make my life here. I’ve always been proud of being Romanian and I’m proud of being Canadian too.
I am proud to preserve my language and my traditions. It is important to me that my daughters embrace them as well. My dad used to meet his Romanian friends in specific coffee shops and I thought maybe we’ll one day have a place to go to as Romanians. A cultural center where we can share the language that we have, the values and traditions. That was my vision for ORCA.”
Bogdan’s point is quite logical. Why expend energy fantasizing about Romania when you can create a mini Romania here and now? Prior to ORCA, Bogdan was active in the Romanian community. He created a Romanian over 35 soccer league and used the league as a platform to organize fundraisers for various charitable initiatives. He reached out to his friends and connections, initiating the first official meeting in February of 2012.
Shortly after ORCA became an official organization, people began coming forward with requests. One plea came from the family of Julia, a baby born with a rare genetic disorder called CDKL5. In May of 2012, ORCA organized a fundraising gala to simultaneously help Julia’s family with their extensive therapy costs and support related research projects. An independent organization emerged as a result of this gala, dedicated exclusively to putting on fundraising events for Julia and her family.
Bogdan set out on a relentless mission to form a tight-knit community based on mutual support and a big vision. ORCA has grown organically thanks to the leadership of many volunteers.
Michael Lapadat, a former ORCA Board Member, has eagerly promoted the organization across Toronto and Richmond Hill. Iuliana Pasco is the brain behind ORCA’s summer festivals and business connect events which attracts hundreds of participants. Gabriela Covaci, who leads the ORCA kid’s initiative, was named one of Royal Bank of Canada’s top 25 Canadian Immigrants.
With the help of Horia Petrusan, a Board member who keeps ORCA’s financial records, the ORCA Student Grant program has contributed $25,000 to 21 university students since 2012. Most of ORCA’s social events double up as fundraisers for the grant program.
My Kindred Spirit
I notice Ana-Maria Macarie wrapped in the Romanian flag. Her bustling energy and astonishing patriotism are contagious.
I take a seat next to Ana-Maria to inquire about her immigration experience. Finally, I find someone else who sheds tears over her homeland. She had been living in Toronto for four years before she connected with ORCA in 2012. She felt lonely and found it difficult to meet people:
“I am too grounded in my roots. I met Canadians, great people, amazing to talk to, but they didn’t touch my heart.”
Now Ana-Maria tirelessly plans ORCA events, including a yearly Christmas party where she teams up with another Board Member, Alberto Tihan, to ensure a smooth and fun-filled event. The ORCA student grants are awarded at these Christmas parties.
As the carolers say their goodbyes, I reflect on the evening that was. It occurs to me that whether they’ve shed tears or not, it’s love for the motherland that has inspired these Romanian immigrants to uphold our beautiful traditions and to give back to their community. ORCA has catalyzed a spirit of togetherness and common bond in our culture that I never imagined. I guess you have to miss Romania, before you can fully appreciate it.