Dana Popa

“”To be integrated means to be open to the culture in which you settle, without forgetting or denying your roots. You take something from that society, but you also bring something along. All these are opportunities for your personal development. We, as Romanians, have an extraordinary richness of emotions and feelings that we can use here very well.””
Dana Popa was born in Cluj Napoca (Romania). She spent all her school holidays in Sângeorz-Bai, a region very rich in cultural and folk traditions. She moved to the Netherlands in 1990. Nowadays, she is a transcultural therapist, for relationships and families and she also assists in psychiatry. Dana Popa is the vice president of the „Romanians for Romanians” Foundation. She initiated and she is also the manager of the Interconnections Online School for learning Duct hand Romanian. She loves very much the Romanian folk traditions and her passions are anthropology and photography.

What brought you to the Netherlands?

I got here by train in September 1990. In fact, a month prior to that, I had been here as a tourist, together with my mother and sister. I came in September with the intent to stay in the Netherlands. I brought along my grandmother’s small suitcase, I had a stuffed toy under my arm and 20 German marks in my pocket. I had just inherited some money from my great grandfather, which I used to buy my train ticket.

The desire to see the world drove me to come here. My mother raised me to believe that there’s so much more to the world than what happens in Romania. So, ever since I was little, I had this desire to see the world, to know the world beyond the borders of my country.

I chose the Netherlands because I already had some ties to it. In the 80s, I translated from English into Romanian and vice versa letters that were being sent illegally from the Netherlands to Romania through the Baptist churches in Cluj. I was involved for almost two years in this translation network. There were a lot of Dutch people who were in contact with the churches in Cluj. Right after December 1989, when a group of Dutch people came to Cluj, I showed them around and I was their interpreter. Some of them became my friends.


How was is in the beginning?

It was tough, because I arrived straight to the asylum center. I was alone and as a 21 year old, I was among the youngest in the center. Around thirty different cultures coexisted there. In the beginning, I lived in Katwijk aan Zee, in a small hotel, later I lived in Putten. That took about a year and a half. It was tough, but also very interesting. This experience turned out to be useful to me later, although I was already open to other cultures ever since I was still at home.

For an entire year there was a lot of stress, I would say. You feel alone and you are subjected to all kinds of pressure: from the police, from the Ministry of Justice, even from the other cultures, because there were people from Africa, from the Middle East, who were also, in turn, subjected to other kinds of pressure. There were many who spoke only their mother tongue, they didn’t speak English, and I helped them a lot. Somehow, I was an interpreter again. But the pressure felt by those around me sometimes pressured me. You never knew if and when you would be sent back. You didn’t know at what stage your file was. You had to weekly stamp your temporary residence permit. You went in or out of the center, you had to go through the check filter. So I had to juggle with a lot of situations in which I found myself for the first time and I was alone.

I have to say that I very much enjoyed learning the language and this process gave me wings. And I learned it on my own because the official lessons were going too slow for me. I was impatient and eager to learn. My rescue in that asylum center was a group of Iranians, they were extraordinary people, with such a rich culture. Well, I liked Dutch so much that I even taught them the language.


What happened after you left the asylum center?

I started to look for a job and back then that wasn’t so easy. First of all, you needed a work permit, and that work permit was being issued only if you already had a job. It was a vicious circle that had to be broken at some point. A Dutch family that adopted me helped me to eventually find a job in the healthcare sector.


And, in a way, you’re still active in this field. Why did you choose to be a therapist?

I think this is something that I’ve always done. When I was little, a lot of people used to come to my grandmother’s in Sângeorz-Băi. Especially in the summer there were many tourists coming. People would gather for clacă (sittings of villagers engaged in idle chatter; peasants doing voluntary collective work accompanied by games, idle chatter, singing, humorous or wise sayings, etc., ed.), there would be also tourists, and they would talk about life’s issues. We, the children, were not allowed to stay and eavesdrop on big people talking, we were being sent away to play. I would manage to stick around, because I was offering to give women a massage. I wouldn’t say anything, I would just listen. It seemed fascinating how people could solve their problems by talking, how a problem can be perceived from so many points of view.

Of course, it was a challenge to do my specialization studies in Dutch. I worked in the healthcare sector as a supervising tutor for people with mental disability and I learned a lot back then about the human makeup and behavior. After I finished my studies, I became a family therapist and a cognitive behavioral therapist. Later, I associated with other colleagues and I even opened my own practice. Now, I’m a transcultural systemic therapist, coach, and trainer.

As a therapist, do you get to work with many Romanians that live in the Netherlands?

Yes, it’s been quite often in the past five years. I have Romanian clients that are facing adjustment problems in multicultural relationships or have other personal problems regarding raising a child, their work, etc. The problems are sometimes similar to those of other nationalities, but the causes are different. The problems of someone who grew up in a communist country have other causes compared to the problems of someone who grew up in the United States or in Africa, for instance. The root causes define us in a different way and that requires a different approach.


If you look back at all these years, what’s it been like?

It seems like they went by very quickly. I’ve been here for 27 years already. I get to the point where I say – just like the ladies whose stories I used to listen to when I was little – that time flies! And that’s how it is.

I see how I’ve grown up, how I’ve evolved. And I now see how my little girl is growing up. Every day is a different world, every day there is something happening. It’s a lifetime in a day and a day in a lifetime.

How do you feel in the Dutch society?

I feel good, this is where I’ve developed, I have a family here now. On the other hand, I think I could adjust anywhere. I’ve become more of a world citizen. I get to interact with so many cultures in my practice and my personal life that sometimes I think I’m able to adapt and integrate anywhere. For instance, I sometimes think that maybe I’ll go back to Romania, back to the roots.


How did you manage to find the balance between your Romanian roots and the ones you grew here?

I’ve been in constant contact with my country. I very much love the region where I come from – I’m from Cluj, but my grandparents are from Bistrița-Năsăud. I’ve kept many stories from there. It’s a very rich area, with folklore and traditional costumes preserved even to this day, with traditions that are very dear to me. Here, I try to keep as many customs as possible. And I never part with the shoulder bag I made together with my grandmother and that’s already known to many people around here.

I tell my little girl about all the roots she has, because she’s far richer than me – she has roots in Romania, Spain, and Portugal, she’s born in the Netherlands and she’s being raised by a second father who has Armenian roots. We talk a lot about the influence that various cultures has upon us, we try to learn also other languages besides Dutch and Romanian. And I see that she feels immediately at home, regardless of the culture she interacts with.

What does success mean to you?

I think you’re successful when you feel at ease with yourself and in relation to others. And we can’t always feel at ease with ourselves, but we can reach a balance. We get to appreciate our own self, our own past, and we harness and appreciate interdependence. Because we’re all unique. It’s only with our own self that we get to go all the way until the end. Many times, we don’t dare to speak up about this search of the self in relation to ourselves and those around us. The relationships in our lives are just as important as our own self, through them we discover and define ourselves. If that balance is upset, if we no longer feel at home with ourselves or with those around us, then we can feel depressive or have other health issues.


What kind of a relationship do you have with the Romanian community in the Netherlands?

I believe you already know that I’m the vice president of the Romanians for Romanians in the Netherlands Foundation, which I’ve founded together with Cătălina Negru and Ana-Maria Murariu. We’re already in our second year of activity. It’s been an old wish of mine to gather together the community. When I came here, Romanians were very scattered and didn’t even know each other. I wanted for us to have a name, to let people know who we are and what values we have. And this is how the dream is coming true, bit by bit. Romanians start to have a voice in the Dutch society and I’m very happy about it. For instance, when the local elections happened, I discovered that there were no less than six Romanians on the Amsterdam voting lists. I would not have imagined that thirty years ago.


What would you advise a Romanian who would like to come to the Netherlands now?

It’s very hard to give a piece of advice now. What helped me a lot was to learn the language, which opened many doors. I came into contact with a lot of people, it helps with raising children in an easier way. I know there are Romanians that come here and stay in an international bubble and get to interact very little with Dutch society. But I believe that learning a foreign language enriches us.

Many people don’t realize that migration is an important step in life, similar to the coming of age, or getting married, mourning, becoming a parent, and so forth. Migration destabilizes us emotionally and mentally and it requires of us to find a new balance or stability. As migrants, we’re much more challenged that when we live in our home country. And we can’t always resort to the same methods and attitudes to get over a difficult situation as those back home would do. That’s why we need a community, a group to which we can belong, where we can feel at home.


What does it mean to you to be integrated?

To be integrated means to be open to the culture in which you settle, without forgetting or denying your roots. You take something from that society, but you also bring something along. All these are opportunities for your personal development. We, as Romanians, have an extraordinary richness of emotions and feelings that we can use here very well. The roots are not to be forgotten, they’re not to be denied, that would be as if you denied your past. When faced with tough challenges, you have to know who you are and where you come from. In the countryside, at my grandmother’s, you’d be asked on the street: “And whose kid might you be?” In other words, it matters who’s behind you, what values you bring along.


An interview by Claudia Marcu

translation Mihaela Nita

photos from the personal archive; edited by Alexandru Matei

Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin –  www.cristiancalin.video