Ex-UF scientist thanks MacKay
He helped daughters out of Romania
Published: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 10:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 10:54 a.m.
In 1985 Mircea and Ileana Garcea fled the murderous rule of Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu, once considered the toughest of the iron-fisted leaders in Eastern Europe's communist bloc.
The Garceas spent 15 months in Germany, awaiting the U.S. government's approval of their claim for political asylum. But their hasty pursuit of freedom meant leaving their young daughters behind in Romania.
In due time, the family was reunited and emigrated to Florida, and on a recent chilly morning the Garceas visited Ocklawaha to get their first chance to thank in person the man they feel was most responsible for making their family whole: former congressman and Florida governor Buddy MacKay.
Over muffins and coffee at the MacKays' home fronting Lake Weir, the Garceas, now residents of The Villages, recounted, sometimes tearfully but with joy and a thick Romanian accent, their odyssey from their native land to Ocala.
"All the time I think about my freedom. You have no kind of freedom, and I want to get somewhere with freedom," Mircea Garcea told Mackay and his wife, Anne, about living in Romania.
"I live the dream."
The Garceas recalled a life in Bucharest where Ceausescu's secret police were known to listen to phone calls and break up small groups of people who gathered on the streets to converse. The slightest appearance of anything abnormal drew the attention of the Securitate, as Ceausescu's enforcers were called.
In 2009, Oana Lungescu, a former Romanian immigrant, wrote in The Independent, a British newspaper, that about one of every 30 people in her small native country of 23 million collaborated with the Securitate, informing on their neighbors to a regime known to have murdered, jailed, or sent to forced-labor camps thousands of its own citizens.
The Guardian, another British paper, reported in 2006 that the dictator had recruited children ages 12 to 14 to spy on their parents and teachers.
"People think they know socialism," Mircea Garcea observed. "Only people who live in socialism know socialism."
"It was modern slavery," he added. "I was a slave."
Once the Garceas decided to leave in 1985, they made their way to Frankfurt, Germany, where a Catholic organization assisted them in reaching U.S. officials for help.
They waited 15 months for the FBI to finish its background work, they said.
"They were afraid we were going to bring the communist system to America in our pockets," Mircea Garcea joked to the MacKays.
Meanwhile, their daughters — Isabell, then 17, and Mona, then 9 — remained in Bucharest.
Mircea Garcea said the government confiscated their apartment and tossed their belongings onto the street. The girls were sent to live with their grandparents.
In December 1986, the Garceas — Mircea was then 50 and Ileana was 42 — entered the U.S. in New York City.
The sponsor, Mircea said, diverted them to Florida because he had helped another Romanian immigrant settle in Daytona Beach.
But when the trip took a turn through Gainesville, Mircea said he knew he wanted to be inland.
At times in Romania, he had worked in the oil fields, as a food inspector, and at the University of Bucharest.
He wanted to work at the University of Florida, but the couple found Gainesville too expensive. They instead settled in Ocala.
Ileana Garcea took jobs cleaning houses and doing laundry. For a time she worked at the Seven Sisters Inn.
Shortly after their arrival, they visited MacKay's office.
They recalled it was closed and they slipped a letter under the door. They later got a return call from MacKay's staff saying the congressman was interested in helping them in getting Isabell and Mona to the United States.
According to the Garceas, MacKay was "aggressive," urging the State Department to move quickly to reunite the girls with their parents.
In 1987, about a month after MacKay's his first contact with the diplomatic corps, the Garceas' daughters were on their way to America.
Mircea Garcea was hired in April 1988 as a biological scientist in the veterinary medicine department at UF, and eventually landed in the neuroscience section of the Psychology Department. There, he rose from a lab technician to a senior biological scientist.
When he retired in 2006, Alan Spector, then the assistant director of the university's Center for Taste and Smell, wrote a letter praising Garcea for developing a pioneering surgery on the gustatory nerves, the network of sensory fibers connected to the taste buds.
Spector called it "artwork," and said Garcea was "one of the few scientists, if not the only" one who do this procedure — which Garcea said he developed by operating on rabbits.
His work is cited in several scientific journals.
And their daughters went on to their own individual successes.
Isabell, 45, is a dentist in Jacksonville and Mona, 36, is a television producer in Hollywood, currently working on the CBS sitcom "Mike & Molly," and a veteran of the network's other hits "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory."
The Garceas say their story is the quintessential realization of an immigrant's vision of America — one that shows the U.S. as the land of promise and opportunity.
They recalled coming to the U.S. with $2,000 that they had saved, no fluency in English, and no contacts beyond a sponsor.
"I came here with nothing, no money, no language, no relatives, no nothing. I had to start a new life at 50 years old," Mircea Garcea told the MacKays.
"You can do it if you have to. I have no other chance to survive."
Ileana Garcea noted that the family returned to Romania last year for a wedding, taking their girls with them.
Ceausescu was deposed and executed on Christmas Day 1989, ending his 24-year reign of terror. While Romania today is nothing like it was under his rule, democracy has not delivered on its promises, the Garceas said.
Their daughters, they added, kept thanking them during the trip.
"They recognize what kind of sacrifice we made to bring them out of that country, because we don't have freedom," Ileana Garcea told the MacKays.
"It's the American story, really," Buddy MacKay answered, noting that the lakefront house where they met was built by his grandfather, who had emigrated from Scotland.
"What ties us together is that we are a nation of immigrants."
MacKay played down his own role in helping their daughters.
While the State Department's bureaucrats were more likely to listen to him as a congressman than private citizens, MacKay said his staff — especially Samelia King and Nancy Cowart — deserved the credit for being the key advocates for reuniting the Garcea family.
"I think this is a great story. This is America's strength," he said. "People come here and they make a contribution and your family has made a huge contribution."
"This is a part of the job that does not get publicity, but it is one of the most rewarding parts of the job," he added about getting the chance to hear the Garceas' story first-hand.
"This is one of the rewards of being in public service."
Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or email@example.com.