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Most Minnesotans know little about Romania, except perhaps that it once operated terrible orphanages and was the legendary home of Count Dracula.

A new Twin Cities nonprofit is working to change that, and recently received a prestigious grant from the Romanian government to assist them in reviving the Romanian language.

An estimated 5,000 people of Romanian heritage live in the Twin Cities, even though immigration ground to a halt for nearly 40 years under Communist rule. Since the doors reopened in the 1990s, new arrivals have become one of the driving forces behind a revival of Romanian culture in Scandinavia's back yard.

In the past few years, Minnesota has hosted visiting Romanian literary and musical figures. It has launched a Romanian Genealogy Society, an oral history project, Romanian career networking events and scholarships for youth. There was even a Romania Day at a Gopher women's basketball game to honor new team member Alexandra Ionescu.

That's on top of the long-standing religious holidays and fall festivals retained by Romanian churches.

"It's like a renaissance of the Romanian community in the Twin Cities," said Vicki Albu, a member of the board of directors of HORA, or Heritage Organization of Romanian Americans in Minnesota, which was awarded the grant for the language classes.

"I've been trying to find out more about my culture for years. There was a vacuum of information. In this past year or two, there have been 15 to 20 events. There are real [recent] Romanians here now, and we can learn from them."

Bucharest is pleased

This is music to the ears of Stejarel Olaru, secretary of the Department of Romanians Abroad, which gave HORA the grant. His mission is to keep language and culture alive among the roughly 8 to 10 million Romanians living outside the country of 20 million people.

"It's very important that Romanians born abroad know their culture so they have a better understanding of what Romania is and what it stands for," said Olaru, in a phone interview from Bucharest. "It keeps Romania open to them."

It's also an indirect way for Romania to embrace new citizens. Under Communist rule, Romanians who fled the country were stripped of citizenship.

Today, not only do émigrés remain citizens, but direct descendants can apply for citizenship.

Arguing that "language is the starting point of culture,'' HORA launched six Romanian language classes this fall, attracting students ranging from Romanian adoptees to missionaries to grandchildren of Minnesota's original immigrants who settled in the St. Paul area. HORA President Monica Nedelcu Erickson said she thought about 50 people would sign up. About 140 did.

On a recent Saturday morning, students headed into the basement of a tiny Romanian church in South St. Paul and greeted their teacher with a hearty "buna ziua."

Over the next hour and a half, teacher Raluca Octav taught them to pronounce the letters of the alphabet and basic greetings such as "see you later." She also reminded them to learn both language and culture.

" 'How do you do?' in English is just a greeting," explained Octav. "However, in Romania, you would not ask me how I'm doing unless you really want to know. People here would ask me and I'd tell them, 'I'm horrible.' They would melt. It was a lesson. Now I say, 'OK.' "

The church basement, like the students at the long tables, illustrated the bookends of Romanian culture in the state. The walls held old wooden crucifixes and gold icons of the Virgin Mary — along with a flat-screen TV. The tables were covered with vintage checked tablecloths, topped with copies of "Teach Yourself Romanian."

Adriana Corey, 25, and her mother, Jolene — both from Wayzata — listened from the back row. Adriana was adopted from Romania.

"My birth mother in Romania only speaks Romanian," said Adriana Corey. "This way if I ever meet her, I can speak to her without a translator."

Meanwhile Albu, a fourth-generation Romanian, took notes from the front. She wants to share greetings with the older generation, and maybe even folks in Bucharest, where she now hopes to visit.

"I go to a lot of different events, dinners, and people still speak Romanian as their primary language," she said. "I want to be able to exchange small talk with them."

George Predescu, the Romanian consul general from Chicago, said Minnesota was among the first states to receive the grants from the Ministry of Romanians abroad.

"I definitely see it as a pilot program that could be presented to other cities," said Predescu, who visited Minnesota last week.

Future plans

When the board of HORA meets Saturday, it will consider other ideas to build bridges between old and new immigrants — and reach out to American friends. It will begin by helping Predescu plan a return trip to Minnesota next spring, where he hopes to build stronger Romania connections with Minnesota businesses, universities and government.

It will host a formal gala, events for a visiting Romanian artist and composer and leadership opportunities for youth, said Nedelcu.

Meanwhile, Albu will be dreaming of a future film festival and a cultural center.

The varied ideas reflect the diverse Romanian community here, said Albu. The first wave of Romanians to Minnesota included peasants and laborers, and their grandchildren grew from that base. The wave since the 1990s tends to be highly educated professionals. The goal of HORA is to pull together people of different generations, religions and interests — as well as their Minnesota friends.

Said Nedelcu: "I wanted an organization that would bring all these groups together."

Jean Hopfensperger 612 673-4511