‘I got lost and was scared – is that what’s happened to Brexit Britain?’
As the shadow of Brexit seems to darken over the UK, Catalina Constantin, a 21-year-old Romanian woman who decided to study in England, discusses the difficult three years in her new country.
Every day, I would take the bus from my university in Leicester to the suburbs of Northampton to return home.
Every day, I would follow the landmarks that I carefully picked out to plot my way home, like a 21st century Hansel and Gretel story, but with me as the main character in this strange new homeland.
It worked, too. I grew to recognise the big Victorian prison that looked like something from a fairy tale with its turrets and towers. The old church. The graveyard. The garage that sold cars with prices written in the windscreens in white felt pen.
Then one day, on my way home, I did not see those things anymore.
It was dark. Cold. Pouring with rain. Everything seemed different. I decided to ask the driver if he was taking us all on a mysterious new route known only by him.
“No, love,” he said, with an accent that was short on vowels but long on impatience.
“You are on the wrong bus,” he sighed.
He stopped at the first stop and told me to get off and wait for the next one. There I was. Alone, in the middle of nowhere, under the dim light of the bus stop, surrounded by darkness and trees. Welcome to England.
The cold rain forced me to take the decision to walk home. I crossed the street. As I was walking, I could see a light among the trees. There was a house. Now, as I am reminiscing, I picture it as a beautiful painting. But I was afraid.
I quickly called my father and asked him to stay on the phone with me. I wanted to get home safe. He was in Romania. He was just as scared as me but trying his best not to show it.
It is normal to fear the unknown. My fear felt overwhelming and ever-present in my first year here.
My whole world had changed. I decided to move to England to be able to get a better education. When I turned 18, the only gift I wanted was two airplane tickets to England. I wanted to visit the country with my mother. I needed to convince her to move here with me. We did not have enough money otherwise.
Although I was excited, I had my doubts: “What life do I wish to have there? Is it worth it?” – breaking out of my comfort zone was not going to be an easy task.
I learned – like at the university – to push myself a little more every day. This was my lesson. My task. It was not written in my curriculum. But I did it every day. I grew better and more confident at it until I started to do it without realising it.
I had everything figured out.
I was going to finish my studies here. Get a job. After five years of living in England, I would have gained my settled status.
But then Brexit happened.
After the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, all the happy solutions for my long-term life plan did not seem as simple as before.
I’m one of the lucky ones, however. Being here for three years means I am able to live here after I finish my studies. Students who came to the UK after Brexit in 2020, will not enjoy the same privileges.
Student visas will be required for all students who want to live here. The work permit and student loans that seemed relatively simple and straightforward for me to get in 2019 are now to be given under different circumstances.
“Not to worry,” I said to myself. The universities are trying to find ways to be able to financially support us. We all need time to adapt. But the tuition fees are higher now. For me it was £9,250, now it’s £14,250.
And the only good thing the United Kingdom seems to do at the minute is to provide visa extensions for up to a year after studies for EU and international students.
Parting from the people I love back in Romania was one of the most painful break-ups I have experienced. Some of us leave our countries hoping for a new life. A better one.
Some settle effortlessly. Some are torn by homesickness.
Seeing how the Brexit plan unfolded was not something that I thought I would ever witness in this country I learned so much about in Romania.
It felt like it distanced me even more from my country. I felt like a child who witnessed his parents’ divorce.
Today, the UK, this great country, this grand nation I dreamt of living and studying in, has somehow turned into this Brexit nightmare of skirmishes, of fights on petrol forecourts and empty shelves on supermarkets.
I still love many things about this country. I love the hum of the city and the quiet of the countryside.
I love the people – most of them – who are friendly and cheery and call me ‘love’ in shops, which always makes me smile.
I am not saying that I did not face any form of discrimination. Some people believe that immigrants are stealing their jobs. That we are Gypsy beggars. Or that we sound aggressive. But that is just a misunderstanding on their side. It is human nature. I don’t take that personally.
I had the opportunity of meeting a variety of people that were interested in my country and culture. There will always be people who turn against each other.
Will I stay here?
But I’m not as certain as I once was.
I am not sure if I want to live in a country where grown men fight each other for a tank of petrol. Or where I cannot get bread or fruit in the supermarket.
I do not wish to live in a country that reminds me of the communist dictatorship in Romania. I hoped I left that behind.
So, I like it here. I like what the UK is, what it represents and its people. I do not regret being here at all.
But the dream I had as a small girl growing up in Bucharest is not quite the reality.
I can see that.
I wonder why the politicians who have ushered in this new era can’t see it.