Bulgarians in London: The lost generation

By Dobriyana Tropankeva

Since the fall of Bulgaria’s Communist regime, the country has lost approximately 15% of its population in only two decades. Nowadays Bulgarians are diasporas not only in every European country, but also in most of the cities. The scattered communities have grown over time and created their own cultural societies. Bulgarian migrants have learnt the languages, adopted the culture, and blended into their new host countries.
Their children are foreign citizens. Most of them don’t speak Bulgarian and the mere association that they have with Bulgaria will be with traditions that have been kept alive and holiday travelling. One could say that a whole generation has been ‘lost’.

Bulgarians in London

London as a great, multi-cultural, European capital was one of the main target destinations for the migrating Bulgarians after the fall of Communism. Having grown up in a Communist country, young Bulgarians were seeking a chance for a better life. Western movies had created the image of Great Britain as an almost fairy-tale kingdom, where if you are motivated and hard-working, opportunities will follow.

Not like in the movies

But moving to the UK was not as easy as it sounded. Those who immigrated after the fall of Communism faced a wall of rules and restrictions from the European Union. Restrictions that were only fully lifted in 2007, when Bulgaria became a full member of the EU.

Teodor was one of these immigrants who came to London. He was born in the city of Yambol in Bulgaria. During Communism this was an industrial city and the location of a military base. After the regime change, the factories were privatized and the number of people required in the army was significantly reduced. Yambol nowadays is a small city, where the only income comes from a small range of services.

Teodor’s family initially owned 3 shops, then 2 and after the closing of the last one, his parents decided that it was about time to emigrate from the country. His father moved to England as self-employed and entered the construction business. Teodor had to make a tough choice. He either had to graduate from high school like all of his classmates and stay in Bulgaria, or move to England where he was still dependent on his father and under-age.

A land of shattered dreams

“I was hoping to complete my secondary education in the UK. However I was told that I can’t do that because Bulgaria wasn’t part of the EU back then in 2003. It was a shock to experience the difference in the social systems, because people in Bulgaria were thinking that life here is easy, maybe almost as easy as in America – to get the education, to get a job, to have a future.  But in reality what happened was that I wasn’t given even the opportunity to go to school because the fees were so high – I had to pay about 4000 pounds every year! I simply couldn’t afford it.”

The alternative for Teodor was to find a job.  For a person who hasn’t graduated from high school and didn’t know the language fluently this was a tremendous challenge. He had to start with a cleaning job.

“I had to mature pretty quickly. I was told to do such a low job. My dreams were shattered. This is not a country where you can get easy access to education or progress into your career. I stayed only because I knew that the things in my country will not improve.”

Adapting and fitting in

Teodor realized that the key to success is to learn the language and adapt as fast as possible.
“I was absorbing everything that I could see or hear; the accent, the culture, the gestures and what interested people here, because it is so different from Eastern Europe. This is the material world where how much you earn and what car you drive is much more appreciated than the abstract idea about culture and art.”

Teodor studied English on his own and a year later he improved enough to start a new job as a customer assistant on a train station, where he worked for the next 5 years. Now that the job was secured, he faced a new problem. Applying for university without having completed his secondary education.

“The selection process is mainly for people who come from the English school system, which means that for other people such as me it is a real challenge to find out what the requirements are.”

It took Teodor 5 years to collect the necessary money and educational qualifications in order to be accepted as a full-time student at a British University.

It takes the right attitude

Now, whenever Teodor goes back to Bulgaria for a holiday, he tends to compare the two countries. He believes that the key to development should be grounded in people’s attitude.

“Bulgarian perception is very negative about our own development. There are some visible things like new buildings and companies, but if you are familiar with the country there is still this mentality that we will not get anywhere. The British, in contrary, are much more constructive.”

A British identity

Teodor has become a British citizen after passing the compulsory “Live in the UK” test of English language and history, and taking an oath of allegiance to the Queen. His life in London shaped his new identity.

“I feel that my experience in the UK changed the way I think. For me to understand the culture I had to become part of it. It was a necessary transformation. Now I feel I am a British citizen and I feel like a Londoner. This has become my home.”

Today Teodor is part of two rather different generations. In the UK he has become part of the so-called “New Londoners”, which refers to migrants who have lived there for 10 years or so. He is planning to stay and live in the English capital. For Bulgaria, Teodor has become part of the “Lost generation”.

This project was organised by the European Youth Press and made possible thanks to funding received through the Council of Europe’s European Youth Foundation. For more information visit http://www.orangelog.eu/en/orange-magazine-youth-press/.