When life doesn’t give you an opportunity, create one (or many)

possible-953169_960_720A girl. Poor family. Limitations. Then, a chance. A seized opportunity. Discrimination. Strength. Stubbornness.  Now, limitless.

“Unemployed Britons in Europe are drawing much more in benefits and allowances in the wealthier EU countries than their nationals are claiming in the UK, despite the British government’s arguments about migrants flocking in to the country to secure better welfare payments.”

This Guardian research also reveals that “about 2.5% of Britons in other EU countries are claiming unemployment benefits – the same level as the roughly 65,000 EU nationals claiming jobseeker’s allowance in the UK”.

Then why do immigrants from poorer EU countries, living in the UK, keep being discriminated and blamed for “stealing” social benefits when the same number of Britons are doing so in richer countries? Moreover, according to the National Office for Statistics, in 2014 three – quarters of the Bulgarians and Romanians (two of the most stigmatised states) that migrated to the UK came to the country to work, pursuing a better life, not to claim unemployment benefits.

Take this Bulgarian woman, Ralitsa Vasilovska, who lives in London since 2007after Bulgaria entered the EU for example. I meet her in the lobby of the Hilton DoubleTree hotel, where she is staying during her work – related visit to Manchester. She tells me she has just come back from a Tory conference, where the PM David Cameron gave a speech on the matters of social mobility, schools and prisons.

She is wearing a navy blue skirt – suit and tells me her suitcase is full of rather boring suits because her job requires her constantly attending conferences and formal events, meeting with MPs.

Ralitsa works in Public Affairs, which is essentially PR for politicians and councilors in her case. In a nutshell, she lobbies the government not to change the laws in such ways that are detrimental for her company’s interests. Surprisingly, she works for a well – known betting shop – William Hill. She thinks of it as a “really interesting job because betting is not one of the most popular things to talk about in politics”.

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Ralitsa at an SNP conference, 2015

Ralitsa’s journey to get to this position however started long ago when she was merely a 13 – year – old girl with a dream to visit England. She first came to London when he was 15 through an exchange program and spent a few months in a local family. She says that this was the time when she learned most about British culture and how to get by in London.

When she decided to come to the UK to continue her Bachelor degree in Indology the same family offered her to stay with them again which she says was a great help for her and she will always be grateful. She continues: “I am not ashamed to say that I come from quite poor a family of seven children and back then it was really difficult for a foreigner to get any loans from the government to help them support themselves during their studies, apart from the tuition fees loan. I arrived with £20 in my pocket.” The lady she had previously lived with offered her a room in her house and Ralitsa started paying her a little bit for rent every week. Although she recalls: “That was after a while because it was very difficult for me to find a student job”.

Ralitsa says that throughout her experience in the UK she has never been discriminated directly. However, she recalls numerous times when she did feel discriminated: “Because of my origins, because of my name… but also at work I’ve felt discriminated in terms of getting a position as opposed to someone who was British”. Today she is the only woman in her team at work: “I think I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if I was very sensitive towards all the comments that they make or if I felt that they were being sexist all the time. So in that sense, yes, I have felt discriminated”.

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Ralitsa with her siblings and three friends at a birthday party

When asked why she decided to pursue a career in politics, Ralitsa says that in a way it all started from where she comes from: “I am the oldest of seven children –six girls and one boy, brought up mostly by our mother. Our father died when I was a teenager. We were considered to be from the poor casts of the Bulgarian society for a long time but I’ve never really felt unhappy. I just felt that my options were limited, but that kind of motivated me to find different ways to do what I wanted to do and shaped me the way I am. I think I became political because of the family I lived in.” She also says it is “tough” being the oldest of seven children: “They all kind of look up to you and you don’t really have a choice but to live by example. I always had to be the responsible one, to deliver the best results in my studies, to take care of my siblings.”

Ralitsa’s achievements, especially abroad, look all the more impressive, given her origins and childhood. She goes on to tell me about her life back in Bulgaria: “When I went to high school I’d lie to my classmates about how many children we were.  When I would talk about “my sister”, I never really said which one and how many there were exactly. It wasn’t because I was ashamed. It was because I didn’t want to deal with the aggravation of the stupid questions I would be asked: “Is my mom Catholic, because she doesn’t use condoms and contraception and that’s why we are so many kids; are we gypsies; are we Turkish because they have big families… And you know, when you are 13, honestly, this is not something you want to deal with. I’ve been asked all those questions during my childhood and at some point in high school I decided I don’t want to put up with this anymore. Back then I thought “I want people to think that I’m cool and I don’t want them to judge me because I’m from a family of seven children”. It wasn’t my choice, after all. Until today I have this aggression because of my childhood and I think that this is what keeps me going. When you are born in that situation you don’t look at it as weird because for you this is the norm.”

While her dad was still alive he was the only parent working. Her mom was taking care of the kids. Ralitsa recalls her mother’s eagerness to find different ways to get support from charity organisations since the social system in the country was quite poor.

When she tells me all this only slightly does her expression change from the wide smile she welcomed me with. She does not look sad though. She does not look self – pitying either. She looks strong. She looks proud.

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Ralitsa with three of her sisters who all currently live in London

Ralitsa tells me she is a big advocate for a bit of struggling in life because otherwise you can never learn.” No, I don’t want my siblings to suffer, but they do need to struggle a little bit for this experience will make them strong and persistent. In order to be successful, especially abroad, you need to be resilient; don’t give in to what people tell you, be very strong emotionally and mentally, try to create opportunities for yourself, not wait for them to come to your door, keep on pushing and fighting, also have an idea of what you are trying to achieve and remember why you are here. If everything is offered to you on a platter, you can never get this essential experience.”

So this is how Ralitsa Vasilovska’s life started – in a big and happy family, from a poor country with limited opportunities nonetheless, being discriminated and stigmatised for where she comes from. Until someone gave her a chance. Until someone believed in her. Until someone gave her an opportunity.

And she seized this opportunity. She did not give up and step by step she started going up the ladder of success – she started working for a betting shop, then progressed to manager, advanced her Indology studies in India, did an internship for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and is currently finishing her Masters’ Degree in Law, working closely with politicians.

She adds: “I really enjoy politics, but I don’t just like lobbying something for someone else. I like creating the policies as opposed to just pushing a policy into a situation that is good for a company or an individual. But I think my current position is a way forward for me to do something more.”

According to the Guardian, commenting their research on immigration mentioned earlier, the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, Vĕra Jourová, said: “Free movement of our citizens is essential to the European union. It is a fundamental right and an asset to our union. Free movement of people – to work, live and travel in other EU countries – is at the core of having a strong single market and it benefits our economy and society. Abuse weakens free movement. Therefore, member states need to tackle abuse decisively where it happens and EU rules provide the tools to do this.”

Ralitsa Vasilovska has in the past been eligible to claim benefits in the UK, but has chosen not to do so “as a very proud Eastern-European”. She continues: “I actually think Bulgarians in particular are quite proud and we don’t like applying and taking benefits when we don’t really need them, admitting we are weak; we don’t have this mentality.”

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