Twenty-five year old Alexandra Bulat has a Masters from Cambridge University. She is of Romanian origin and she is doing a PhD at the University of London on attitudes towards EU nationals in Brexit Britain. She is also a spokesperson for the "Young Europeans" initiative.
Alexandra Bulat moved to the UK from Romania in 2012 when she was 18 years old. She didn’t speak English well but she had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and was very driven. Seven years later, she is about to get a PhD from the University of London after obtaining a first class degree at university and a Masters from Cambridge. Today, she is a spokesperson for the “Young Europeans”, aiming to help them define and communicate the difficulties they face in integrating fully in Great Britain in the time of Brexit. She is a petite and shy, but disarmingly forthcoming, young woman. And since I first met her in London in 2017, she has established herself as a spokesperson for young Europeans in the UK, she has almost 9000 followers on Twitter and she’s been invited on a number of TV programmes. But Alexandra’s story started long before that.
When did you move to Great Britain?
«The first time I went to live in the UK I was three years old. It was 1997. My father moved there from Romania to participate in an NHS training programme for young surgeons from the EU. After a few months, my mother and I joined him. I remember going to the hospital’s nursery, where I started to learn English. Unfortunately, as my mother, who was also a doctor, was unable to find work, we left to go back to Romania after almost a year».
Why did you go back to the UK after so many years?
«The year I spent in the UK when I was a little girl profoundly affected me. I always loved everything that came from the UK and I always wanted to go back. As soon as I graduated from school, I only applied to universities in the UK and I got a place at Sussex University».
How were your first few months in the UK?
«When I arrived, my English wasn’t that good. I had difficulties following what my house-mates said. Fitting in wasn’t easy although I certainly wasn’t the only foreigner on campus. After some months, however, I made friends and I even found a British boyfriend! I had to get used to a very different educational approach to the one I was used to in Romania and I struggled to keep up in my first year».
But you managed to overcome the initial hurdles and you kept up your studies. What do you do today?
«I am very determined. I made up in my second and third years managing to get a first class degree and then I got a place on a Masters degree at Cambridge. I’m now in the last year of my PhD at the University of London and I’m studying attitudes towards EU nationals in Brexit Britain. I’m also engaged as coordinator and spokesperson for the “Young Europeans” initiative in order to better understand barriers to integration for young EU nationals living in Great Britain today».
What has been your own experience of integration in the UK?
«Despite the initial difficulties, I’ve integrated well. Having a British partner has certainly helped. In spite of that, I’ve always noticed a deep distrust towards Romanians. When I meet new people in the pub with my partner, usually they always ask him first where he’s from. His mother is from Singapore and his dad is British so he doesn’t look like a typical Brit, although he was born here. I don’t look foreign, but then as soon as they hear my accent I also get asked where I’m from».
And when I say I’m Romanian, there’s some who ask me if I’m a gypsy and others who attack me saying we come here to steal British jobs. By interviewing dozens of people for my PhD, I’ve learnt that perceptions are primarily influenced by people’s daily experiences and by who they meet, not by data and statistics. These don’t play any role in getting people to change their minds or to dispell myths about immigrants.
Have you noticed any changes in the past three years, since the EU referendum?
The worst time for Romanians was not after the 2016 referendum but in 2014, when, seven years after the entry of Romania in the EU, we gained full working rights in the UK. I still remember the headlines in the tabloids saying there would be an invasion by millions of Romanians, instigating fear and resentment in the British public. As a Romanian, I’ve had negative comments and I’ve experienced xenofobia both before and after the referendum. What has changed in the past two years is that all my European friends, who had never felt discriminated before, now also feel they are perceived as migrants and as such they are ill-tolerated. This has brought us closer, helping to open up new opportunities for dialogue. Even a British-Caribbean friend of mine told me she was recently shouted at to “go back home”… she was born here and she’d never experienced that before. If you were born in the UK but you don’t look British you will get abused these days, it’s incredible.
Do you intend to stay in the UK?
«Yes. For the time being, both my partner and I have good jobs and I intend on finishing my PhD by December 2019. It’s true, I’ve already noticed prices going up in supermarkets and I don’t know how things will change after Brexit. If things really turn out badly, then we may consider moving to Singapore, the US or Australia. I’ve just been granted settled status and in twelve months’ time I’ll be able to apply for British citizenship. But one thing a Romanian girl told me really hit me: “even if you get a British passport, you can’t erase who you are… for British people you are, and will always be, a Romanian”».