“I am Liuba! My name means love!” Tears stream down her face as she grasps Tanya’s hand through the bars. Her other hand clutches a scarf to her cheek, a new one Tanya had brought and passed through the iron barrier between them. “I need communion,” she says, reaching for Tanya as if for an anchor in a storm.
Liuba’s voice rings loud through the inner courtyard, and she stands tall, bright and unmistakable in orange. It is not the orange of a prison uniform, but her own winter coat. She is in isolation for two weeks, just back from another facility where she was sent due to health issues. She has served more than five years of her sentence, with another two to go, and has two children waiting her release, currently being fostered by a Christian family.
Tanya holds her through the bars of the door, praying calmly yet firmly in Romanian, and there is a transfer of holy energy here. Leslie and I step back a few paces, leaving them to this exchange of tears and prayer.
The spring sun shines on the white buildings of the compound and the brave green shoots coming up through the grey soil. A cat moves silently to a sunspot in the grass. But the north wind is cold here at Rusca women’s prison.
We have just had a writing session in the Prayer Room at the top of the hill, also known as the “Miracle Room.” We had surrendered our passports — Canadian, American and Moldovan — and been given a full pat-down by a female guard at the front gate. Leslie and I are here with a few local ladies that regularly visit this prison. Luminița carried in a stack of boxes loaded with placinta, the delicious pastry I had fallen in love with at first bite. We walked the steep road up to the Prayer Room where the women were waiting for us (and the placinta), crowded around three sides of a square of tables. One of them, beaming in a black wool vest, enveloped each of us in an enthusiastic hug. We took our seats at the front of the room, smiling at this rather unusual class and the curious murmur of Romanian and Russian.
The women wear their own clothes here, and jewelry. There were young women, with eyebrows carefully and thickly drawn on, and old women, grandmas in colourful scarves tied beneath their chins. There were Roma women, some women we were told who could neither read nor write, and others with eyes turned at odd angles, deformities which made me wonder who must have taken advantage of them on the difficult path to this prison. Most seemed eager. A few were reserved, the person inside retreating behind a still face, holding secrets, averting gaze.
Plates of placinta, hot tea in paper cups, notebooks and pens were passed out. The slide presentation Leslie had prepared would not load on the prison’s smart screen. Leslie dove in bravely without it, Tanya there to translate everything into Romanian. When Leslie introduced herself as a mother of six (five boys!) and a grandmother of four, the room erupted in applause. Here was something they honoured greatly.
As Leslie began to speak of her own survival in a place where her voice did not matter, I saw a hungry sort of hope in the quieted room. Faces glimmered with tears and nods of understanding. She went on to tell about how God asked her to forgive her own abusive father, and how writing helped her to do just that. But we did not dwell on heavy things. For there was a story of Seabird Soup to be told! And this all from memory, for the only copy of the story was on the missing slides. Crinkly-eyed smiles met Leslie and Tanya’s dramatic retelling.
Then, it was time to write. Leslie prompted, “What were you good at as a girl?” “Tell a story about you and food!” Some did not touch their notebooks or pens at all. Others opened them eagerly, sending their neat script onto the waiting lines without any hesitation. Eyes brightened with remembrance of long-forgotten days.
As the sound of scribbling and low voices filled the room, I sipped my tea and looked around at the pale orange-pink walls, shelves of living plants, photos of children, a full bookshelf, and a picture of Jesus holding one lost sheep. In many ways it did not look like a prison — simply a meeting of women, gathering around stories and sweets the way women have through the ages.
When the time came to share what they had written, some of them were fairly bursting. They were good at cooking for the family! At baking! One grandmotherly figure, who told us she was a kindergarten teacher, spoke of taking care of her siblings as a girl — this naturally led to her career. I wondered what had led her to this place? What other identity did she own besides kindergarten teacher? And the lady sitting next to Leslie, whose silent tears had been flowing almost since Leslie began to speak, turned and poured forth her story to us, her voice rising almost to a wail as she spoke of how important her family was to her, how grateful she was that they had not abandoned her here in prison. When women first begin to awaken to their voice, it is hard to silence them.
But our time was limited. This was not, after all, a tea party. These women were due for a routine check, and the schedule would not wait. Empty cups and paper plates were cleared, notebooks and pens claimed. Perhaps more stories would follow?
On the way out, the lady in the black vest puts something in my hands — an exquisitely crafted card decorated with delicate rolled paper flowers and a tiny ladybug. Inside, the inscription reads:
Înainte ca să Mă cheme, le voi răspunde;
înainte ca să isprăvească vorba, îi voi asculta! Isaia 65:24
Later, I look it up in English:
“Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.”
We hug one last time. Doesn’t every miracle start with being heard by God?
“I love you! I love you all!” Liuba declares boldly, arms thrown wide toward us. “We share this love in Jesus!”
Her presence seems to me a beacon in this bleak place — a desperate cry of need and yet an affirmation of the identity she has found and is still in the tumultuous process of living out. A name that is more than a name. A name which needs the touch of loving hands to get her through this sentence of suffering. But her words pass beyond the bars, out into the air where the birds are singing, singing, unbound by the chains we humans fashion for each other and ourselves.
“I am Liuba! My name means love!” These words will always have the snap of north wind and the colour of orange — the truth which is setting her free, even here. The truth which echoes in my ears and into my heart, which does not know enough about love yet either. This is how she wants to be known. In a place where the penalty for her sins has taken so much away from her, she has this — her name. Her voice.
We must go — the prison guards are telling us so. We push the button marked “Exit,” a privilege for the free. We walk one at a time though the metal turn-gate and collect our passports. My passport will not have the stamp of Rusca on its official pages, but Liuba’s words have inked something in my soul. I will remember that there is a love that connects us. Jesus, I need this love too. I will remember your name, Liuba.
~ Lindsey Gallant
S. D. G.