Lenuta -Hellen' Nadolu was a bright young woman with a promising academic future when she met Victor, the dashing Ghanaian doctor who saved her mother's life after a near-fatal home abortion – the only option available to desperate women in Communist Romania. Hellen had worked hard to overcome a childhood marred by poverty, uncertainty and violence, understanding from a young age that her intelligence would be her ticket out of her caged life in a society that valued women mainly for their marriageability.
But her youthful naïveté led her to lose the virginity so prized by her domineering father, who sometimes sent his daughter for official -virginity checks'. Confused and alone after her scandalised family disowned her, Hellen became pregnant, eventually marrying Victor in order to secure a future for herself and her daughter. With that, her university dreams died forever. To make matters worse, the closed borders of Romania under Ceaucescu's dictatorship fostered a cloistered and highly racist society; Hellen was frequently called a slut by strangers on the street for marrying a black man, and her tiny daughter Elsie spat upon and called a -black crow' for her mixed race heritage.
The cracks in Hellen's still-new marriage were already beginning to show before the family left Romania for a fresh start in Ghana. Victor's dismissiveness and increasingly aggressive behaviour peaked when he began an affair with a 17-year-old high school student with a view to taking her as his second wife, a tradition ingrained in Ghanaian culture. Yet again, Hellen became the prisoner of a man, unable to flee Ghana with their now three children without their father's permission and forced to rely on her husband to ration out their meagre weekly food portions. Hellen gathered all her courage to leave Victor and become the first European woman in history to successfully divorce a Ghanaian man. She smuggled her children home to Romania only to discover that little had changed – she and her family were still subject to racism of the worst kind – and, desperate to find a future free from prejudice, Hellen fled the country for Australia, with only $50 to her name, to apply for political asylum.
It took a year of endless applications, interviews with immigration officials and living on the poverty line but Hellen was finally granted asylum and, a year later, flew her children to join her in Australia. So began the happiest chapter of the family's life. Determined to be both mother and father to her small children, Hellen worked two, often three, jobs in order to support them and to avoid being a burden to the State, sending her children to good schools for the education Hellen herself lacked. Elsie is now a mother to the next generation of indomitable Nadolu women, and runs a successful business with her younger sister Nancy by her side, while son William qualified first as a pilot and then built his law firm, and dedicates his free time to helping those less fortunate than himself.
Give Me Courage is a stunning memoir, the story of an amazing woman forced to fight prejudice, tradition, the patriarchy and even Communism in order to provide a future for her much-loved children.
Lenuta -Hellen' Nadolu is a successful, self-made business owner and cosmetologist. She is 61 years old and lives on Sydney's lower north shore. Her three children, Elsie, William and Nancy, and her two granddaughters, Amira and Leila, also live in NSW.
Give Me Courage
Author: Lenuta -Hellen' Nadolu
Question: What inspired you to write Give Me Courage?
Lenuta -Hellen' Nadolu: Whenever people hear me speak of the stories of my life, they urge me to write them down. They thought that my experiences would help others in similar circumstances. I felt humbled by their interest but my limited English skills and lack of time meant that I postponed the task of writing the book.
Question: Was it difficult reliving certain aspects of your life whilst writing Give Me Courage?
Lenuta -Hellen' Nadolu: The most difficult aspect was bringing my long-buried memories, my childhood memories, to the fore. A theme that flows through my book is how my formative years have provided the solid ground upon which I have trodden my life's path. The struggles and challenges I experienced from early childhood have provided me with a reservoir of emotional strength and mental resilience.
Question: What do you hope readers take away from the book, Give Me Courage?
Lenuta -Hellen' Nadolu: Give Me Courage is an inspirational story which aims to raise awareness of the very real challenges many ordinary people, such as myself, face daily. It's real, is living life and it comes from the heart. It is clear and truthful. I hope my story moves and inspires readers to search within themselves for their own strength and courage, to gain resilience to help them climb that mountain called life.
Question: How have your children responded to the book?
Lenuta -Hellen' Nadolu: Elsie, my eldest daughter:
During the last five years of mum planning and writing this book, I had not really taken a keen interest in its contents. To be honest, I thought mum was just completing a life hobby ... passing time! Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined it would have ever been finished, published and then in the media. Upon finally reading the book while I was on holiday recently I was moved, touched and deeply grateful.
I cried throughout the book. I knew my mother's overall story but I never imagined her ongoing hardships and utter determination.
Her resilience makes me want to be a better person, to make her proud. I am more than pleased, in fact. I'm overjoyed with her achievement. This book has been like all the other things in her life ... my mother doesn't take "no" for an answer. I know she fought hard and suffered for us, her children, and I couldn't be more grateful. Words cannot express the depth of my admiration, pride and pure love for an amazing woman of whom I'm lucky to call myself her daughter.
William, my son:
I love the book and couldn't put it down, reading it in only two days. The culture, characters and eventfulness of the story had me enthralled. The perseverance had me inspired. I'm overjoyed by her success.
Nancy, my youngest child:
Over the years we had heard snippets of Mum's story. I was intrigued and surprised to find out the full story, and in awe of my mother's determination and courage.
Question: Did you find it somewhat therapeutic to write the book?
Lenuta -Hellen' Nadolu: Since the very beginning, I have always felt that there was a bigger -purpose' to writing my book, more than just personal catharsis alone. Writing it gave me a sense of oneness with the universe and with every human being. I realised with every passing day of writing how we all are connected by the experiences we share, by life's joy, pain, laughter and sorrow.
Interview by Brooke Hunter