Romanian migrants build new lives in Britain
By Luiza Ilie, photos by Luke MacGregor
Poverty and a lack of jobs have driven millions of Romanian workers abroad in search of a better life, helping fuel an anti-immigration backlash in wealthier Western countries that could hurt governments in upcoming European parliament elections. Reuters interviewed immigrants in the United Kingdom and the families of those left behind in Romania.
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The following are photos and scenes of some Romanians who have built a new life in the United Kingdom, and who mostly said they faced remarkably little discrimination despite the media frenzy that marked their arrival. The UK was one of six European Union countries that lifted its restrictions on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria at the start of the year.
Father Ioan Nazarcu
On Sundays, Romanian migrants in the UK fill up churches for Orthodox mass. At the biggest church in downtown London, up to 400 people fill the pews. They mostly dress modestly and look tired, holding onto toddlers while girls in pink sashes chase each other.
In Luton, 30 miles north of London, up to 150 adults and children show up for Father Ioan Nazarcu’s Orthodox mass on Sunday in a church rented by the hour from its Anglican owners. A lunch follows, with the entire congregation contributing food.
“Our community is made of young families and most of them have children,” said Father Nazarcu, who also serves as a social worker in a retirement home near Luton.
“These are people who work from sun-up to sundown. One cannot cut corners here but you stand to gain if you do your job in this country.”
Father Nazarcu, who arrived in Britain in 2007 and was ordained as a priest here, distributes a newsletter to his congregation and often asks for their help to assist new arrivals, be it with temporary housing or finding a job.
Daniela Badaluta was only 17 when she married her husband. By the time her second child was born, he had gone to London for work and she said he rarely sent money home.
Driven by the need to provide for her children, Badaluta left the poor eastern Romanian town of Suceava, where jobs were scarce three years ago. With her sons in the care of her parents, she borrowed money from a friend and went to London to live with a husband she said was physically abusive.
She had no skills and did not speak English. At first she peppered the neighborhood mailboxes with handwritten flyers advertising her skills as a cleaner. Gradually, she got informal cleaning and babysitting jobs and learned the language.
Over time, Badaluta secured a job at a fast-food restaurant and gained enough confidence to separate from her husband. She met a new man and they have a toddler. Now 25, she sends money home for her children but she wants to bring them to London, a city that she never wants to leave.
Community organizer Iris Radulian wanted to put years of community work and study to good use, so she founded My Romania Group, an NGO whose motto is Empowering the Romanian community.
Radulian, 31, arrived in London in 2004. My Romania Group is licensed to run supplementary education classes, so Radulian has two weekend schools teaching Romanian geography, history and other subjects to about 70 children, and English to their parents.
“There is a lot of emotion at work in this project,” said Radulian, in a Romanian pub in the northwestern borough of Brent. At the start of this year Radulian teamed up with a London soup kitchen and two nights a week she offers a hot meal and counseling to Romanians down on their luck. Her first case was Eugen Smantana, an electrician who had gone to London after work dried up in Cyprus. He was down to his last 24 pounds, she said.
Radulian made some calls to Romanian businesses and found him a job. She also helps find Romanian foster families for the more than 300 Romanian children whom social services removed from their homes.
Marius Spiridon and Andreea and Mihaela Toniciuc
Marius Spiridon, 37, and sisters Andreea and Mihaela Toniciuc, 20 and 23, have been best friends almost since they first met in the central Romanian town of Comanesti.
Andreea was the first one to move to London in August of last year to work as an au pair for a family. Her sister and Spiridon followed suit in November. They waited until the start of this year, when Britain lifted restrictions for Romanian and Bulgarian workers, to apply for national insurance numbers.
Both sisters work as au pairs and live with their employers, while Marius rents a room nearby. They have also set up a small retail firm selling vegetarian produce. Whereas in Romania it took them about a year to get permits for a small company, it only took eight working days in London.
“It is like Babylon, but it is a very functional society,” said Spiridon. “Everyone is polite and there is respect and understanding for the need to prosper and the need for privacy.”
All three also take cleaning jobs in their spare time and they have a three to five year plan to raise enough funds to get a tourism and construction business off the ground back home.
Meanwhile, all three speak highly of their London experience. “No matter your job, you can earn a living here,” said Andreea Toniciuc.
After failing to get tenure for the 16th time in 2011 at the high school where she taught history in her Romanian hometown of Abrud, Adriana Berindei decided to find work abroad.
Her choice was Britain. She had been to London on a two-week holiday that summer and loved it. She also met her boyfriend there, a Romanian who had worked in Italy as a house painter for 15 years before the crisis pushed him to relocate to London.
They had their first meeting at Big Ben, after which she dragged him through an endless tour of London museums.
“I am lucky to have him, he has learned life lessons that even two masters degrees can’t teach,” said Berindei, who has two undergraduate degrees and two graduate masters in political science and modern history.
She contacted a recruitment agency in August. By January she was babysitting two children nearby London for 700 pounds a month, with room and board. Since then she moved to London on another babysitting job before joining a cleaning firm.
She and her boyfriend will soon start a small cleaning and painting business.