I grew up in Communist Romania in the 1970s and 80s and lived with my parents and my younger brother, Andy. My parents were of working-class background. My father worked as an engine driver for the national railway and my mother was a manager in a shoe factory. My father was a prolific reader and we had an extensive library at home. He taught himself English by writing out the lyrics from the Beatles songs, had lessons in German and French and was always listening to current affairs on the radio. He was quite an intellectual and was able to converse fluently in several languages, and at the same time he was a person of profound faith, while my mother had more of a superstitious kind of faith and was more attached to the ritualistic form of religion. We very occasionally went to church to light a candle in the name of passed-on relatives or to make a wish, for example.
Throughout my childhood I did not go to church or receive any form of religious education, as any form of worship was officially banned under Ceausescu’s regime. During my teens, however, I developed an avid curiosity towards religion as I was attracted to art. It all started by looking around the very ornate and beautifully decorated Orthodox churches in my home town of Timisoara and wondering about what the different scenes depicted or what stories from the Bible the sparkling mosaics were trying to tell. My father gave me the family Bible to read and encouraged me to ask questions on our long walks together at the weekends.
Growing up under the austerity measures in the 1980s was especially hard, as all essential goods were rationed and we only had two hours of electricity in the evening, when we were exposed to mainly Communist propaganda and the weather news. I trained as a nurse from age 14 to 18 under Ceausescu’s Education Programme and did relatively well, ending up with a Diploma of Baccalaureate (the equivalent of 5 A levels) and a Nursing Qualification by the age of 18. I wanted to continue my higher education and was preparing to go to university to study medicine, but this was not to be.
In December 1989 the Revolution broke out on my street and my life was about to change dramatically and irreversibly. I was only 16 and was among the students demonstrating against the oppressive dictatorship in the streets of my hometown, where we climbed on top of trams to stop traffic, were sprayed with water cannons by firefighters and marched towards the City Hall before being shot at by the Army, drafted in to disperse the crowd of demonstrators. I was fortunate enough to survive the 16 December 1989 massacre. and memories of that tragedy are still alive in my mind today. My street was renamed after the date when it all started as the “Boulevard 16 December 1989”. Many youth died that night and sacrificed their lives for the end of Communism.
I enjoyed my training as a nurse and was planning to go on to study medicine. With that in mind I did some work experience with a local dentist. It was a very depressing period of my life, full of uncertainty after the Revolution, and I spent most of my spare time reading the Bible every night, teaching myself English and praying, searching for answers. I remember praying that I would understand the Bible’s hidden message, that I could read its meaning between the lines, and I had many questions about my purpose in life, questions about injustice, racism and gender inequalities. One of the phrases that stuck with me was: “Seek and ye shall find; Knock and it shall be opened unto you…”
In the spring of 1992, after some particularly difficult exams, my best friend was trying to cheer me up and suggested we go through the town centre on our way home. She mentioned that on her way to school she had seen an interesting exhibition and that a guy was translating from English into Romanian and she was sure I would enjoy it.
When I arrived at the street exhibition, a number of Bahá’í pioneers were giving out leaflets, while others were busy in conversations with passers-by. I decided to go straight to the written word and I was struck by the simple yet profound principles of the Bahá’í Faith. Every time I read one of them it was as if someone was switching the light on inside my heart and my mind. In particular, I was touched by the principles of the equality of women and men, the vision of the harmony of science and religion, and the abolition of all forms of prejudice. It was as though all my prayers were being answered right before my eyes, and I declared my Faith in Bahá’u’lláh instantly! One minute I was on one side of the table reading the principles and the next I was giving out leaflets to everyone else.
Unbeknown to me a person was watching all this and was very angry with me. He came and asked me how I could do such a thing without thinking it through, but undeterred I told him to mind his own business, as I knew what I felt in my heart. It transpired that the gentleman in question was a member of the Pentecostal Church who, seeing how successful the Bahá’ís were at street teaching, took it upon himself to test the new recruits. He had in his hand a copy of the newly translated Book of Certitude and had scribbled with red ink all over its pages words like: “blasphemy!!” “lies”, “not true” etc. I was intrigued and I became curious about that book. I wanted to know what it contained that had made this person so angry that he had defaced it, and had dared to test my new-found faith.
My test of faith did not only come from non-Bahá’ís, it also came from the Bahá’í friends. The recently translated Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude) caught my eye and I was determined to find out more about it. The friends were hesitant to give me a copy as they said it was too complicated for me to understand but, of course, hearing that made me want it more, so I persevered until I managed to obtain a copy and, of course, I am still trying to understand it more and more today.
The same day, I went home and told my dad about my becoming a Bahá’í. I declared at Ridván 1992. My mum was very worried, as she was reading a book about mass suicides in America at the time, and she tasked my father to follow me and see where I was going to meetings. My father and I talked about the Faith openly and he became curious too. On May 23rd 1992 I invited him to the Holy Day organised at the Bahá’í Centre and he declared that day too! I thank God, He recognised the Exalted person of the Báb and the Majesty of Bahá’u’lláh almost as instantly as I did and we have a very strong bond because of this.
My mother could not believe it! I remember her chiding him saying: “I tell you to keep an eye on her and you go and join them!?” but then she allowed us to have 19 Day Feasts and other meetings at our house. She never did formally declare her faith in Bahá’u’lláh, but I know for sure that she read all she could get her hands on and that to this day she says her Bahá’í prayers. She and my brother, Andy, never did declare or accept the Bahá’í Faith as my father and I did.
On 13th July 1992 I was walking on my way to my work experience, when I spotted a Bahá’í exhibition and decided to stop and have a look at the new magazine just published. I had a feeling like I was being watched and when I looked behind me, there was this blond and blue-eyed young man, who was mustering the courage to approach me. After circumambulating a couple of times he came over to me and asked me first if I spoke English, to which I replied in the affirmative. As I was on the page expounding the Principles of the Faith, he then asked me if I liked the principles, to which I replied that I was already a Bahá’í. His reaction to this reply took me by surprise as he was so happy and then, as I took my sunglasses off and our eyes met…it was love at first sight! I had never felt like this about someone before…
We conversed about all the different things we had in common, from the Faith to medicine, and our particular interest in surgery. He was Steven Cleasby, then a young 21-year-old medical student from the UK, visiting Romania on a teaching trip with a friend. He insisted that I come along to the 19 Day Feast that evening, and I did. When I arrived at the Feast, which was held at the Bahá’í Centre, he was not there and I felt disappointed. I left my address with a friend in case he wanted to correspond. On my way out, he was waiting outside. He had arrived late as he needed to console a pioneer who felt homesick that evening.
I had to leave in a hurry and did not really understand the reason for his being late but I left him my work address, hoping that we could write to each other. Unfortunately, he returned to the UK and never did write to me that summer. However, unbeknown to me, he returned to Romania at the end of the summer and was posted as a pioneer in Iasi, a city in the north of the country.
In the meantime, subsequent home visits from the pioneers in Timisoara to my family deepened my father and me on the verities of the Faith, the importance of prayer and fasting, and reading the Writings. The pioneers came regularly to our home throughout that summer of the Holy Year of 1992, and then encouraged me to attend the summer school. My parents were reluctant to let me (just 17 years old) go at first but then they allowed me on condition that my younger brother, Andy, attended too. At that summer school in September 1992, held in Costinesti, near the city port of Constanta, I met my now husband, Steven Cleasby, once again by the hand of destiny. The rest, as they say, is history. We were married in England the following summer, on 23 July 1993, at the Burnley Bahá’í Centre. A year later our first son, Joseph, was born.
Twenty-seven years on and with two more lovely children, we have made sure that as a family we have always been involved in serving the Faith, teaching it to the best of our abilities, and never missing a Summer School.
Steven, Jonathan, Ramona, Joseph and Daniel
Coming to England at the age of 18 was not an easy experience for me. The culture shock and the differences in everything I experienced from weather to food and cultural norms was something that probably took me about 10 years to get used to and I still think it was one of the hardest things I have done in my life. If it was not for the loving support of my husband and his kind family I would have really struggled to adjust to a new way of life, become a mother and continue my education in a foreign land. Our three wonderful boys, Joseph, Daniel and Jonathan have anchored us in service and are, to this day, the greatest achievements of our life together as they have all embraced our beloved Faith. We feel so blessed to have brought forth three more beings “who shall make mention of God” and thus fulfilled the purpose of our marriage.
During our several pilgrimages to the Holy Land we had the enormous bounties and privileges of meeting the last surviving Hands of the Cause, Rúhíyyih Khánum, Mr Vargha and Mr Furútan. As a youth, in 1991 Steven was inspired by Rúhíyyih Khánum to come to Romania and pioneer and in 1999 I was encouraged by Mr Furútan to start children’s classes and to study Psychology. Around the same time we started having regular Friday night devotionals at our house and then gradually we were actively involved in all the core activities from children’s classes to study circles.
In 2001, Steven was asked to serve as a member of the Auxiliary Board for the North of England and Malta, serving the Continental Board of Counsellors and the International Teaching Centre. Our path of service together continues as we look forward to contributing our humble share to the best of our and our children’s abilities for the sake of Bahá’u’lláh’s love.
Yorkshire, January 2020
Jonathan, Ramona, Steven, Daniel, Joseph and daughter-in-law Nour, on pilgrimage