Romanian Revolution

London UK Romanian workers

Romanian workers, once demonised, stuck with Britain through Covid and are now helping to keep the economy afloat.

Codi Savisk, 45, managed a pub in central London until last year. “I was the only Romanian, but I worked with Bulgarians, Germans, Italians,” he said. When the pandemic hit, against a backdrop of Brexit uncertainty, nearly all the staff returned to their home countries.

For Savisk, staying was never in doubt. He remembers life before Romania’s 1989 revolution. “I saw people who lived in really hard times. Real poverty, where you have no heating or hot water and children do homework by candlelight. We had rationing like you did in the war.”

It started as an “adventure” for Savisk when he arrived in 2008. Thirteen years later, he works at the Brasseria Timisoreana in Burnt Oak, north London, a suburb known as “Little Romania” because a third of the population descends from the country. He has settled status and wants a blue British passport. “Britain is going to be stable, economically and politically. I don’t see that changing much after Brexit,” he says.

Savisk is not alone in choosing to stay. According to the latest figures, the nationality with the most applications for settled status in England was not France, Italy or Poland but Romania. Some 860,430 Romanians have applied to stay – 918,270 across the whole UK – since March 2019, with thousands more applications being processed after the deadline three weeks ago. In England 465,220 talians, 190,330 French and 128,690 Germans applied.

The number is a surprise because the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put the Romanians living in Britain at just 404,000 in June last year, itself a jump from 282,000 in June 2016, the month of the EU referendum. The official Polish population has shrunk from 971,000 to 815,000 in the same period.

One cause of the undercount is that the ONS’s annual population survey does not count people living in communal establishments.

“The number doesn’t really surprise me,” said Paula Geanau, 32, an outreach officer for the East European Resource Centre, who has spent months urging Romanians to apply for settled status. “There are a lot of people who are under the radar of a census and other data collection, but it’s only in this situation where you actually find out how many people are in a specific group.”

She added: “It’s like young people who never register for their GP because they never get sick. They’ve never had to prove their status before, so why would they bother?”

Romania became a full member of the European Union in 2007, prompting a wave of immigration that continued even after Britain voted to leave.

Geanau is Romanian and arrived two months after the Brexit vote. “I know, I’m insane! But I realised I was going to make the best of it.”

Ioana Cosa, 32, is a nursery manager living in Croydon who came from Sibiu, Transylvania, in 2011. In Romania her job might make her Ј1,000 a month, but Cosa is paid nearly three times that in Britain. Although Brexit worried her, she had no intention of leaving. “I always thought that as long as I’m working and paying my taxes, nothing would affect me,” she said.

Perhaps more important is that their work is valued. More than 80 per cent of adults are employed. Laurentiu Chirita, 41, who runs farmers’ markets all over London, said most Romanians wanted to be appreciated for their work. “In the UK they can feel that. Back home, not so much,” Chirita said.

Romanians kept Britain going through the pandemic, suggested Chirita, who arrived in 2005. “I don’t know any Romanians who left the country in the pandemic. I think everyone was here, from drivers to teachers. They were very much involved with essential jobs.”

The NHS employs at least 4,700 Romanians, and there are more Romanians working in adult social care than any other non-British nationality. Last year Claudia Anghel, a Romanian midwife, was one of 12 healthcare workers selected to appear on posters celebrating the NHS’s 70th anniversary.

But Romanians have not always been celebrated. In a 2014 radio interview, Nigel Farage, then the leader of Ukip, said: “‘I was asked a question: if a group of Romanian men were moving in next to you, would you be concerned? If you lived in London I think you would be.” He has claimed there is a “high level of criminality within the Romanian community in Britain”.

Like thousands of young Romanians, Ruxandra Fratesca, 32, moved to Britain aged 18 to study. “At my first ever job, a colleague said their wallet was stolen on the Tube. She turned to me and said, ‘Ooh, maybe the thief was Romanian.’ That was a great shock!”

On the whole, though, she has found Britain tolerant. “There was a view that we just come here to take unskilled jobs, but that’s changed a lot over the years. There’s a big chunk of people who are highly professional and bring a lot to the economy.”

Fratesca’s main job is as an operations manager at a medical systems company. In her spare time, she has started a cakemaking business from her home in west London. She used to sell to farmers’ markets, but ended up with lots of spare cakes when footfall collapsed during lockdown.

“I’d pack up the leftover cakes and take them to West Middlesex hospital A&E. It was very welcome during the pandemic – they were all working really hard and they were just super grateful,” she said.

For many Romanians, the UK represents something greater than work or money. Along with Emma Raducanu, the 18-year-old British tennis sensation – who was born in Canada to a Romanian father and Chinese mother – the UK’s most celebrated figure of Romanian descent is Sir George Iacobescu, 75. The man responsible for developing Canary Wharf arrived in 1987, and is the only Romanian to have received a knighthood.

He fled communist Romania in 1975. “The post-communist world still sees the UK as the cradle of freedom,” he said. “When I went to high school everybody was either openly or secretly dreaming of going to England. I’m not talking about a bunch of people coming and looking for work. It’s people who are searching for freedom, understanding and civilisation.”

Romanians were “Britain’s best salesmen”, Iacobescu said. They are “an army of people who buy British systems and products, and who believe in your culture”.

The cultural ties go to the top. Prince Charles owns a private nature retreat in the meadows and hills of Zalan Valley in Transylvania, where guests can stay for around €100 a night. He attended the 2017 funeral of Romania’s King Michael, a cousin of Prince Philip, who was forced to abdicate during the communist takeover in 1947. Whenever Michael’s daughter Margareta visits London, it is said that she meets the Queen.

“Prince Charles brought sustainability to Romania,” Iacobescu said. “I was humbled to work with Prince Charles in helping appoint a head of sustainability attached to the Romanian prime minister. The Romanians love him and worship him.”

These cultural influences help to explain why Romanian migrants are so adaptable, Iacobescu believes. “You take a Romanian and you put them for three months in the UK, and they’ll start living as a UK resident. They understand the world, and they match the world.”

Along with her full-time job and cakebaking business, Ruxandra Fratesca has a two-year-old daughter with her English partner. The pandemic has made visiting Romania difficult, but she is keen to keep ties to her country and its culture alive.

“I hope my daughter will be interested,” she says. “I try to speak to her in the language – she can just about say ‘water’ in Romanian – but I’m going to try to make her learn it properly.”

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