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An Outsider's Insider

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By Michael Marsh

A phone is ringing in Laszlo Revesz's second-floor office on Ashland near Foster. He picks up the receiver, but the woman on the other end is speaking Spanish. He asks if she knows anyone who speaks English. "Si," she replies, promising to call back in an hour. He shakes his head. "It's a killer I can't communicate with them."

Revesz looks tired, but that's understandable. In addition to driving a cab 36 hours a week, he runs International Immigrant, a free monthly newspaper for the local immigrant community, where he wears far too many hats--editor, designer, cartoonist, distributor, and advertising manager. Since June 1996 his paper has provided newcomers with such valuable information as how to establish credit, find an immigration lawyer, and get foreign academic credentials evaluated. Each issue has stories in four languages.

As an immigrant himself, the 40-year-old Revesz understands the confusion experienced by many recent arrivals. A member of Romania's Hungarian minority, he grew up in Timisoara, near the country's western border. A childhood love of rock 'n' roll led him to start learning English at the age of ten. He studied graphic arts in high school and college, joining Romania's communist youth organization in order to stay in school. After graduation he worked as a graphic designer, and, unlike many of his countrymen, he and his wife, Elisabeta, led comfortable lives. They owned a one-bedroom condominium, took yearly vacations to the seashore or the mountains, and frequented restaurants, theaters, and the opera.

But while Revesz was building his career and enjoying his life, conditions in the country were deteriorating. Nicolae Ceausescu's decision to rapidly industrialize Romania in the late 70s resulted in a massive $11 billion foreign debt. Austerity measures implemented a decade later to pay off that debt caused catastrophic shortages of milk, food, gasoline, and other necessities. Romanians were reduced to using paint thinner or a mixture of methane and gasoline to run their cars. The country couldn't produce enough electricity for its needs. "You had hot water during the summer because the water pressure was so low," Revesz says. "You had cold water in the winter. Everything was upside-down."

Meanwhile, citizens were told that all was well. Revesz recalls that his first job after college involved creating graphs and charts for the Ceausescu government that illustrated "overinflated data and lies on the 'remarkable progress of industrialization' during the 'most enlightened years of communist Romania under his wise leadership.'" The slogans were part of a "perpetual kissing up that was practiced at all levels and in every media."

People survived by bartering goods and services and bribing officials. Resentment of Ceausescu increased, but Romanians feared the Securitate, the country's secret police, which was authorized to arrest or kill dissidents and to harass their families.

One such dissident was Reverend Laszlo Tokes, an ethnic Hungarian minister in Revesz's hometown. Tokes began publicly criticizing the Romanian government after it closed Hungarian schools and churches and decreed that the Hungarian minority had to use the Romanian language. When the government began to openly persecute Tokes, it sparked the street demonstrations that would eventually topple Ceausescu. After the secret police put Tokes under house arrest in December 1989, preventing him from getting food and fuel for his family, parishioners smuggled supplies to him at night and smuggled out two audiotapes, which were broadcast to the city's Hungarian community. Tokes later told some members of his congregation that he would soon be relocated to a remote area of the country and he feared he would be killed. A large group of supporters gathered in front of his apartment.

That night Revesz was waiting nearby at the home of an acquaintance in order to purchase a video recorder. The acquaintance was two hours late, and Revesz soon found himself in the middle of a demonstration. He realized what was happening. "This was my dream which was coming alive," he says. "I wanted this to happen for the longest time."

A pale Tokes went to a window and begged people to leave; most refused until they were sure nothing would happen to him that night. Revesz and his wife stayed five hours. "People were so afraid of each other, because they didn't know which one of them was the secret police, which one of them would carry a hidden camera," he says. "They didn't talk to each other; they talked only to the person they came with." In the following days, government security forces fired on groups of more than three people, killing hundreds. In the ensuing uprising, 50,000 people protested in the streets, and most of the army troops sided with them.

During the demonstrations, Timisoara was cut off from the rest of the country. The phone lines were down, but the people were sure they had won--a rumor circulated that other cities were also demonstrating. Revesz says he told another man to rip the crest off the national flag, and a flag with a hole in the middle became the symbol of the revolt. Revesz and some other protesters helped spread the word by stealing radio equipment and broadcasting from rooftops.

Word of the massacre reached the capital, Bucharest, and other cities. Ceausescu and his wife Elena tried to flee but were captured, tried, and executed. A former communist, Ion Iliescu, became interim president and later won the May 1990 presidential election, despite charges that his party intimidated its opponents. His government would prove to be corrupt as well.

But now that freedom was closer, Revesz wasn't going to let it elude Romania. During the early part of Iliescu's rule he began writing articles and producing political cartoons for a couple of publications. One of his cartoons showed Iliescu, with the body of a chameleon, meeting with members of an opposition group. After most of the communist leaders involved in repressing the revolution were released, Revesz wrote that the trials were shams. His work won him some enemies, who made threatening phone calls and sent ominous letters. The threats increased after Iliescu was elected, and Revesz began to fear for his life. Armed with visas, he and his wife boarded an airplane to Frankfurt in June 1990 with two small bags and $500. At the airport his mother told him, "This is the last time I will see you."

Upon their arrival in New York, the Reveszes endured a five-hour interrogation by officials from Immigration and Naturalization Service, at the end of which they learned they were to be deported back to Romania. Their case was moved to Chicago, where friends put them up for three weeks. Thanks to free legal help provided by Travelers and Immigrants Aid (now called the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights), they were granted political asylum after a year and legal residency after two. Revesz and his wife, who have not applied for citizenship, eventually settled in an apartment in Rogers Park.

At first the couple found work with James Electronics at Rockwell and Irving Park. He put wire on coils; she soldered. At a company picnic, he entertained coworkers by drawing pictures of them. A company official saw his work and offered him a job illustrating employee manuals. To do the job, he first had to learn how to operate all of the company's machines. "Thank God I knew English," says Revesz. He later did freelance work for a guide on corporate transfers to the Chicago area.

The guide reminded Revesz he and his wife had been frustrated when they first arrived here because they didn't know much about the city or where to go for help. He checked around and didn't find any publications devoted to aiding immigrants. In December 1995, he and Elisabeta decided to start International Immigrant. The following June, after persuading friends to write articles and finding reliable translators for its Spanish and Polish sections (he later added Russian), the couple used an old Apple Macintosh to produce the first issue. A year later Revesz moved into the office on Ashland, sharing space with the Romanian Freedom Forum and World Without War Council-Midwest. He prints about 30,000 copies of the paper each month and distributes them in 17 Chicago communities, including Pilsen, Edgewater, and Rogers Park, as well as the nearby suburbs of Skokie, Cicero, Niles, and Lincolnwood.

Two months after the paper's debut, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 into law. The legislation, commonly known as the "welfare bill," bars current and future legal immigrants from receiving either food stamps or Supplemental Security Income and also gives states the option to deny immigrants any benefits paid entirely by state funds. Rather than weakening his resolve, the law strengthened Revesz's belief in the value of the newspaper. "I was more convinced that this was necessary," he says. "The timing was perfect."

Last September President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Individual Responsibility Act. The law--which became effective on April 1--established the criminality of false claims of United States citizenship in order to obtain federal or state benefits. Revesz urged immigrants to speak out against the legislation in a column printed in the January issue of International Immigrant. He wrote that the activation date, April Fools' Day, "has an embedded significance, since the law affects that segment of this country's population that has no right to vote, no voice, no unity, no meaningful representation at any level.... Many of us came to this country for political reasons. We escaped abusive governments, dictatorships, terror, or unjust wars....What happened to that political edge that we used to attribute to ourselves? What do we stand for now that we can safely express our opinions?"

Revesz claims the laws unfairly stigmatize immigrants. "They create another class of people," he says. "It's never good to have another class of people in a society. That creates tension. Any form of hate is never good in a society.

"I am not encouraging immigration," he says. "Only those people who really don't have a choice should consider immigration. But once they come to this country, I think it is to be expected for the most civilized country in the world to treat these people in a civilized way.

"There is the fear of the browning of America. This is something that terrifies some groups. America is the largest and the most extraordinary social experiment as far as the world goes. This country has a mixed population, and this diversity made America be what it is today. Each of these people came with special skills, with special knowledge. So why this fear? The basis of this is racist. It has nothing to do with love for this country."

Revesz has plans to expand his paper's audience, including printing more copies and sponsoring a festival of ethnic arts and crafts. But financial responsibilities hold him back. He has trouble finding business owners who will advertise in the paper, and he's in debt. He says he's often tired from working at the paper every day on top of the time he spends in the cab. His wife, now a premed major at Loyola University, tells him he does not spend enough time at home.

But Revesz says two things keep him going. First, he's received positive letters and phone calls from readers. Second, his experiences in Romania convinced him to be an advocate. "If you love your country, you get involved with what is going on," he says. "I love America. It is a good country, but there are things that can be improved." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Laszlo Revesz photo by Paul L. Meredith.

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