Elena Rees: “I read Oliver Twist as a child and I used to dream a lot that I was walking on the banks of the thames. Despite being horrible story, I was still dreaming to come here”

Elena Rees (1)
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Elena arrived in the United Kingdom in November 2003, after 8 years spent working in primary education and successfully passing all qualification exams back home. The living standards there were not great, though, due to the fact wages could not secure a decent life for a single mother of two like here.

She was a primary school teacher, but also had a degree in law that she never used. At the time she arrived in the United Kingdom, her Romanian degree was not recognized here and her teaching experience was pointless since her level of English was not advanced enough to practice in this field.

Many people advised her to take a job as a cleaner, yet she chose to work for a restaurant. Her first salary paid for a bookkeeping course. “So I told myself: London is the international capital of finance. Should I study something in the field of finance, I will always have a job”– Elena Rees recalls. Then she found an office job in Oxford, where she learned a lot and even improved her English. She took her study of accountancy to the next level and became a certified public accountant shortly afterwards. Then, in 2007, she opened her first business, a consultancy firm, but she decided to close it down two years later because she had a small child and it was too demanding.  

In 2012, she opened another consultancy firm, which in fact consisted of three businesses under the same umbrella. She has many Romanian employees now because she thinks it is advisable “to give jobs to Romanians”. The firm has a department which deals with recruiting students for colleges, universities and qualification courses. She signed a contract with The Job Centre and provides consultancy services to Romanians that need help to obtain qualifications and find better jobs.

Elena Rees (2)

“I am very upset that Romanians satisfy themselves with the low skilled jobs just because it is nicer, safer or simply refuse to push themselves out of their comfort zone,” explains Elena Rees.

What courses do Romanians choose most often?

In recent years, many Romanians enrolled for courses such as Higher National Diploma (HND), Business Management, Health and Social Care or Travel and Tourism. These HND courses require work experience and are addressed to mature students who already have a job. Maybe some graduated only from the secondary education cycle in Romania and although they may have done well in school, they could not attend further education due to lack of time or other circumstances. However, they can attend these courses here should they have at least 5 years of work experience in the UK. These courses are equivalent to the university ones, the only difference being that they are addressed to mature students with no prior qualifications; they are a sort of vocational courses. The courses are funded by the Government, so the citizenship of a member state of the European Union is a mandatory requirement. All my employees are university students. I have always tried to find the best in each of them and to place them in jobs within my firm that would allow them to have time for their studies. I really enjoy learning of Romanians that changed their job profiles. My worst nightmare are Romanians doing the lowest jobs: women working as cleaners and men working on construction sites.
Elena Rees (3)

How did your integration into the English society take place?

I found a job immediately after my arrival, yet the experience was not as I imagined it would be; things only started to get better when I began working as a waitress in a restaurant, which was a very positive experience indeed. I have been lucky in terms of finding jobs. My strengths were that I was already speaking English and I knew how to adapt. My first jobs were significantly under my qualification level. At some point, I found an advertisement for a secretarial job at a firm in Oxford so I started to commute from London. I learned a lot there and soon I realized that I had to start studying something in the field of finance. I received a lot of help, but not from Romanians.

I have not seen my children at all for a period of four years. I was a mother by mail or over the phone. When I left Romania, my boy was 9 years old and my baby girl was 1 year of age. The girl did not even get to know me very well, whereas the boy was always crying for me to come back home and even used to say that he does not need toys anymore as long as I do return. But I had to plan on a long term basis because there was no future waiting for me there. I knew my children were safe with my mother in Iași. I never imagined that four and a half years will pass until returning back to my children as I always thought this will only last for one or two years. The situation here was different back then, so I kept telling myself that after so much struggle I should wait for a little bit longer until I can get a visa and bring my children over. My boy arrived here with the first opportunity to come from Romania in January 2007, while the girl came a few months later, in June.

My integration in society was smooth, in the sense that following my arrival I have always minded my own business, respected laws and rules and I kept learning about their traditions and culture in order to adapt myself easier. Romanians tend to believe that the ones around them have to behave according to their own expectations, but the society here is different, needless to say that they are the ones who should adjust, instead of trying to change the others. Since you are the one arriving in their country, you have to follow their rules in order to be treated like an equal. I advise all newcomers to learn the language and the good manners, since “please” and “thank you” are words less used in Romania. In comparison with the civilized world, it seems to me that our country is less educated and respectful.

Why did you choose the UK?

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to come to the UK. When reading books, I used to imagine the landscapes and even the rain. I read Oliver Twist as a child and I used to dream a lot that I was walking on the banks of the Thames. Despite being horrible story, I was still dreaming to come here. I learned English at school and I took part in school competitions for different disciplines – the Romanian School Olympiads. It was my dream to come to England and this is why I stayed here ever since I arrived. Moreover, now that my children are here as well and that my husband is English, I have no intention of returning to Romania. This place offered me the opportunity to develop as an individual, my career is at the highest point now and I feel at home here.


Do you think that it is easier to make your dreams come true abroad rather than in Romania?

It is, at least for the moment. In Romania you must pay in order to attend university, here you are being paid to do it, hence the big difference. Society here is simply different. If you are driven enough and you have a goal, it is impossible not to succeed. I am the best example. I only had one set of clothes when I arrived. I intended to stay over just for a while and see if I can find work. I was a school teacher when I left, I applied for a leave and I came here. My monthly salary in Romania used to be the equivalent of £60 and the next day following my arrival, the people hosting me had just finished painting a place so they needed a cleaner and told me that I could earn £50 per day for the job. I used to be someone that would never clean her own place (laughs), so I went there – I will never forget this – and I kept thinking that I should have worked for almost one month for those money as a teacher in Romania, not to mention that being a teacher for 30 children meant that I had to guide them, to help them, to teach them. It suddenly seemed very easy to make my dreams come true. I imagined that I would only stay for a while, to save some money and I did not think for a second that I will be staying here for so long, away from my children. But after a week came another and I began the courses. It was very difficult, so it is no wonder that I became depressed. I came to the UK in November and my father died the next February, but my mother did not even tell me about it because she knew that I was illegal here and that I could not return to Romania. He was my stepfather, but I did grow up with him so it was very tough. My boy always used to say “you do not love me and that is why you do not come home.” I was heartbroken, but I had to plan for their future. My boy is now studying to become a property surveyor, which is an extraordinary qualification to have, and my girl is now more English than Romanian. When she arrived, she could not read and write, yet after four months she was already speaking English very well. I am very proud of them both. They bring me great satisfaction. Speaking of differences between Romania and England, as a teacher, I found the English educational system to be fantastic. In Romania, there is too much learning and sometimes it is badly organized, too. Not to mention that much of it may not ever be useful.

What is success to you?

The fact that I see my children succeeding. As every mother would, I measure success through the doings of my children. Success is the fact that I have my children besides me, the decent life we can lead, the fact that we can afford to go on trips. Once I arrived in the UK, my plan was to obtain a qualification that would provide me with a modest life. Notwithstanding the potential of my business, when I started it, I did not even dare to imagine that it will thrive up to its current level. I only wanted to offer something to my children, to be my own boss and I got where I am now. Should I ever close down my firm, I could work for any company of my own choice, whenever I want. My dream is to see that my children are accomplished. They are the measure of my success.

If you were in my shoes and addressed yourself a question, what would that be?

Were things easy for you? I would ask this because it was extremely difficult for me in the beginning. That was because I was all alone and I only knew some Romanians that were neither my relatives, nor my friends. There were mornings when I used to go to work at 4 a.m. so I can save more money to send back home. The commuting used to take me 2 hours on a bus. My best friend at the time was a fox who used to always wait for me when I was coming back from work. Since I was working for a restaurant, in the evenings, I used to bring burgers and meat for the fox and in return, I would have company on my way to the bus stops. It was really difficult at that time because you did not dare to speak Romanian in public, as we easily do now, since there were controls on the buses, so I used to whisper over the phone, needless to mention that call charges were very high. I never used to take the tube. That was because I was saving money so I can call home.

What have you learned from the English people?

A lot of things, really. They are very fair, very well mannered. They are not more intelligent than we are, yet they do things properly – when there is a rule, they follow it. They do not like shortcuts, as we do. Once a promise is made and a rule is agreed upon, nobody turns a blind eye to it. When it comes to rules, social status does not matter. I was welcomed here wholeheartedly, I managed to integrate and feel more like one of them.

Although you have been here many years now, you still lived a part of your life back home. Is there something in particular that makes you feel proud of being Romanian?

I believe it is only the education I received. I belong to the older generation there and my years in school were accordingly. I attended the pedagogical high school and we were offered a good vision on what life means. The reason for which I left Romania was that I could neither accomplish myself as a person, nor could I build a proper career for myself there. Perhaps back then I was at the wrong time, in the wrong place, but when I got here I felt at home.

How much do you miss Romania?

Over the past 11 years, I was there for three or four times. Nowadays, we go over just because my husband likes it very much there since he started to visit it, but I do not miss Romania. This even gets me upset sometimes, but I do not miss it because here is the place where I am fulfilled. There is nothing pulling me back there. But I do want my children to keep in touch with Romania, though. Who knows? Maybe in future we will go there more often.Elena Rees (1)

Autor: Anca Drăgulescu. Fotografie: Alexandru Radu Popescu, Daniel Ceapă