This Thanksgiving, the Pavel family had something special to give thanks for. After 17 years in the United States, Elena and Radu Pavel have at last become naturalized citizens.

“I try to make people understand how blessed you are,” says Elena Pavel of life in the U.S., “because of the freedom you have.”

Until 1989, the Pavel’s home country, Romania was under communist regime, under the control of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and every facet of life was rigidly controlled. “I lived 25 years under communism,” Elena says. “If you would have received a letter from outside the country, you could have spent hours at the police station or worse, if you were not able to disclose [who had sent it and why]. We were led to believe that they read everything and they knew everything about everyone.” Elena would often find refuge in reading and studying, which would help her surpass the difficulties of life and open her mind to the world at large, and her studies paid off. Right after the fall of communism, Elena managed to pass a very difficult admission exam and enrolled at the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies. She later earned a PhD in economics from the same university, while working in the marketing department of the government’s printing house. There she met Radu, and they were married in 1999.

In 2000 they came to the United States. Radu, already a PhD in mechanical engineering, came to pursue his second degree in manufacturing engineering with the aim of conducting research. During this time, Elena remained in Romania to finish her studies and work on a book about the international art market. Elena joined Radu several months later when one of her economics papers was accepted at a conference in Cleveland. Although she had the chance to come as a publishing author to the United States, she gave up this option for a dependent visa, so she could be with her husband. Everything changed when Elena learned she was pregnant. With the birth of Radu Jr., it was a happy time but a difficult one as a family of three living off a student grant, and the Pavels faced a difficult choice. “After one year we decided to take Jr. to Romania,” to stay with her in-laws, a pediatrician and an engineer. They hoped that soon Radu Sr. would graduate and find a job, and Elena would have a chance to start something of her own. They were only meant to be apart for several months. Instead, they would be separated for the next three years.

During that time, Radu Sr. worked at finishing his doctorate. Because she was listed as his dependent, Elena could not work. Instead she volunteered at the Toledo Museum of Art and for the Lucas County Commissioner. There she had the opportunity to improve her English and learn more about the democracy, politics and culture of the United States. She even managed to publish her book in Romania about the international art market, during one of her trips to be with her son. As Radu Sr. was getting close to his graduation, once again, the Pavels had a decision to make: should they return to Romania, or bring Radu Jr. to the United States?

“When you are a student, you start accumulating debt. We said, we cannot go and leave the debt here,” Elena says. She also wanted Radu Jr. to grow up in the U.S. “It’s better for him to live here considering he was born here.”

They moved to Cincinnati in 2004. “The weather was similar to Romania, and the culture of the city was family friendly,” Elena says. Radu Sr. went to work for the manufacturing consulting firm TechSolve, and Elena worked to make up for lost time with their son. She enrolled him in a preschool so he could catch up with the language and spent the rest of the day with him. That led to its own difficulties when Radu Jr. wanted her to stay where he could see her, anxious that she wouldn’t return to pick him up. But, luckily, he loved the school and gradually became more confident. “I really wanted him to speak without an accent,” Elena remembers, “and he speaks without an accent right away.”

As Radu Jr. grew more comfortable in school, Elena tried to find work in Cincinnati. But she was still listed as a dependent to her husband, whose status only allowed him to stay in the country as long as he was employed. As a dependent, Elena could not accept any compensation for her work, which cost her opportunities to teach at Xavier and UC. Instead, she volunteered her time at the Cincinnati Art Museum and Hamilton County Parks, sometimes reading stories to kids at the Discovery Garden in Glenwood Gardens. She also searched for the right schools for Radu Jr., which led her to Wyoming.

“I saw all the schools in Cincinnati,” she says. “Seven Hills, Summit Country Day, all of them. But I fell in love with Wyoming. One day, when visiting, Radu Jr. said, ‘you know, I like this school’ (Vermont Elementary). And we got an apartment.” From the Heritage Apartments on Springfield Pike, the Pavels eventually found a house on Hidden Valley Lane that suited them perfectly.

Around the same time, Radu Sr.’s company reapplied for his status, and the Pavels were given a “green card,” which granted them permanent residency, permission to work, and other rights, but they had to wait five more years before applying for citizenship. Radu Jr., born in the US, already had his, and Elena sometimes wondered if the sacrifices were worth it. “I had more than six years when I could not go back to Romania,” she says. “If you go, you’re not sure if you can come back.” It was a tough time being far from siblings and old friends. “I was wondering if I can really live here. But when I started dreaming in English, I knew I can make it.”

In October of 2016, the Pavels applied for naturalization. They went through all manner of screening: fingerprinting, pictures, interviews and more. Then, on June 30th, 2017, the Pavels became citizens in a ceremony at the Federal Courthouse in Cincinnati.

Life hasn’t changed much as a result, of course. Radu Sr. still works at TechSolve as the Chief Technology Officer, and Radu Jr. is a junior at Wyoming High School. Elena still volunteers, and has been active in both the Wyoming Newcomers and the Junior Womens Club, and in city politics, campaigning for friends during the recent election. But the experience of their journey has inspired her to begin work on a new book, which she intends to title, “Unwritten Rules.”