Tanya: a migration story

Published 12 April 2016 / By Dace Dzenovska

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Tanya: a migration story[1]

It was a nasty winter day in Boston, Lincolnshire. Large snowflakes were melting on their way down, and the wind was howling through the narrow streets. I was walking around, trying to a get a sense for the city, but really just wanting to find a door that would lead me to some warm hiding place. And so I found myself in front of the Baltic Shop. I thought I’d buy some dark bread and cottage cheese and possibly talk to the workers.

Tanya—a young woman with long bleached-blond hair and a round face—was working behind the counter. I paid for my cottage cheese and asked her where she was from. “Iz Latvii (from Latvia, in Russian)”, she said. I gave her my card, explained that I was researching migration, and asked her if she would be willing to meet with me one evening after work. She said she would, and we agreed to meet the next day at 7 p.m. by my hotel. At the time, I did not know that she would not be coming from the shop, but rather from a fast food factory. We exchanged numbers, and I hoped that she would come.

Tanya arrived 10 minutes after 7 the following evening. We walked into the hotel café to have tea. She had never been there before. It was a Friday night, the café was filling with Bostonians—mostly elderly ladies and the odd fellow—out for their early evening cocktail. We sat on a couch in the corner and conversed in Russian. I noticed that people at the next table paused their conversation for a moment and listened in. Just as Tanya had never been to this café, its clientele did not usually share space with migrants, not as clients anyway.

Tanya has lived in Boston for six years. She is from Daugavpils, a city in South East Latvia. She graduated from high school and did not know what she wanted to study. She did not know “what professions the state will need”, so she decided to spend the summer with her father, who already lived and worked in Boston for two years. He had been recruited by an employment agency in Latvia. Two days after her arrival, she “was with an agency”, that is, she had registered with an employment agency that supplied labour to farms and factories. The summer turned into winter, then into another summer, and then into another winter.

Since Tanya arrived in Boston, she has worked in six or seven factories. One day she was offered a contract. Now she is a team leader and oversees a fast food production facility. She says she cannot rise higher, because “all cannot be managers”. And, anyway, for that you need more English. Tanya’s job at the Baltic Shop is supplemental work. She needs to make more money. When her father left Boston to return to Latvia, he did not inform the authorities and continued to receive tax credit benefits. Sometime later, the bureaucracy caught up, and Tanya received a bill for 1000 pounds. She wants her father to be able to come to Boston when she gets married (though there are no concrete plans to do so), so she is paying off her father’s debt. She gets 50 pounds subtracted from her weekly salary.

When I met her, it was only her second day on the job. She was being trained. But she had already noticed that people come to the shop early in the morning to buy their paper and then late in the evening to buy things for supper. The shop closes at 10 p.m. During the day, many people come to pay their bills at the machine. People also buy a lot of lottery tickets. “Everybody wants to win the lottery”, says Tanya.

All this time Tanya has lived in rented rooms. First, she and her father shared a room in someone’s house. When her father left, she moved in with three girls from her high school that also lived in Boston, but did not stay there for more than six months, because it was difficult to live with them. They would fight over who had to clean the house or do other chores. Tanya has now applied for council housing and hopes to get an apartment on her own. She did not know she could do that, but the Bulgarian-run migrant services office advised her that she could.

Tanya is alone in Boston. Her father is back in Daugavpils, as is her mother, though they are divorced. Tanya’s mother is from Belarus and a Latvian “non-citizen”.[2] This means that she cannot travel to the UK without a visa. She has not visited Tanya, for she thinks that getting a visa is nearly impossible. She has heard that you need to arrive at the British Embassy and speak English. Tanya dreams about her mother visiting. She has already made a plan in her head where she would take her mother, if she came. They would get on a bus and go see Lincoln and some of the nearby castles, which Tanya enjoys very much. “It’s easy to travel by bus”, says Tanya.

Tanya does not want to go back to Latvia, because she does not think she would get a job without an education. There are no factory jobs in Daugavpils or elsewhere in Latvia. What would she do? The only thing she could do was to work as a cashier in a supermarket, but even those jobs are scarce. Asked whether she would like to study now, Tanya says no, she would not. She has simply jumped over that stage in life and gone straight to work. She admits, however, that she felt a little envious when her high school friends posted on their Facebook pages that they had graduated from university. She would really like to do something creative—for example, make cakes out of Kinder eggs or flowers out of paper. Back in Daugavpils, Tanya played clarinet in the school orchestra, but she has not played since she left. She has perfect pitch and says that she cannot give money to street musicians who play very badly. “I want to tell them that they have not practiced enough”, she says, “I cannot give them money.”

Tanya visits her family in Latvia every year. She goes to the dentist, to the gynaecologist, to the family doctor. She does not feel that the doctors in Boston treat her as an individual. Every time she goes to the doctor, they prescribe the same thing – paracetamol. If things don’t improve in a week, then they give antibiotics; always according to the same formula. That does not create confidence.

Tanya has made quite a few friends in Boston – Poles, Lithuanians, even some English. With Eastern Europeans, she mostly speaks Russian. Her boyfriend of two years with whom she just broke up was Polish, but spoke Russian, and so they spoke Russian at home. She feels Russian here, but has to clarify for Bostonians that she is both Russian and from Latvia. Generally, people are nice here, but she does not like it when her manager is dismissive towards her due to her insufficient English language skills. He once said something to her and when she had asked him to repeat, he dismissively said: “Eh, you don’t understand anyway.” That hurt.

Tanya likes to sit at home, go shopping, and cook. She watches TV shows. She especially likes detective stories. Asked about her dreams for the future, Tanya talks about a family. She would like to have a husband, children, and a house. She would like to dedicate herself to the family. She wants to have a car and go on small trips with her family. Tanya likes dancing, but there is nowhere to go in Boston. But she does not want to go out late anyway. She is afraid to walk alone at night. She tells me about an incident where a Lithuanian woman stabbed her husband right in front of a store. “Perhaps the English do that too”, she says, “but you don’t hear about it. Maybe the police are only reporting about the migrants.”

Tanya likes to travel. She and her ex-boyfriend saved up money and went on a Halloween cruise to Amsterdam. They also had a holiday in Spain – the beach and the sun. Before going, she had seen many pictures of Spanish holiday sites. Her friends had been there. Sometimes she dreams about going where nobody has gone before, but it’s also good to go where others have been. It’s good to see it with your own eyes.

[1] Research for this essay has been financed by a grant from the University of Oxford’s John Fell Fund.

[2] Those former Soviet citizens who, upon Latvia’s independence, resided in Latvia, but did not qualify for automatic Latvian citizenship, because they did not have kinship links to the interwar (1918-1940) body of citizenry, were issued “non-citizen” passports. Non-citizens can reside in Latvia and are subject to social, but not political rights. They are not subject to the rights granted to citizens of European Union member states, such as freedom of movement. Non-citizens can undergo naturalization by passing language and history exams.