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Story Publication logo March 8, 2022

Romanian Councillor in Newcastle: I’ve Had More Opportunities as an Immigrant in the UK Than as a Citizen in Romania

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Journalist Elena Stancu's project is intended as a portrait of the Romanian diaspora in the UK.

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Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.

This article was written in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. Elena Stancu is a 2021 Persephone Miel fellow. This report was originally written in Romanian on the Libertatea website.

A Romanian Roma family left the country in 2012 because of racism and corruption — Nicu Ion, his wife Daniela, and their daughter Alesia. Daniela and Nicu studied at universities in England, and Nicu became a math teacher. In 2021, he was elected in the Newcastle City Council.

Councillor Nicu Ion, his wife, Daniela, and their daughter, Alesia, in their living room in Newcastle. Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.

The councillors stand when Lord Mayor Habib Rahman and Deputy Lord Mayor Karen Robinson enter the Council Chamber in the Newcastle Civic Centre, wearing robes. The meeting begins at 19:00 exactly.


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A few councillors speak of various problems the city is facing — the pandemic and its economic effects on families with three or more children, the mental health issues Newcastle locals deal with because of the pandemic, pest control for mice, the city’s sports halls, social services for children, the big property holders exploiting tenants, living conditions in apartments.

There is a long discussion on the lack of comfortable accommodation, as more wealthy people buy holiday homes in the city. Some of the councillors are worried by this trend, because many of the apartments get rented to tourists, whose parties disturb residents. A councillor explains why new housing regulations are in order and calls for fines for tourists with antisocial behaviours.

The councillors speak of “our city” with a certain tenderness and pride. They belong to a variety of ethnic and religious communities — most of them are British, but the Lord Mayor has Indian origins, and some of the councillors come from the UAE, Iran or Romania.

Every speaker sticks to their allotted time. They thank their colleagues for their attention and the previous speakers for bringing up subjects, even if they belong to different parties and beg to differ. While a councillor has the word, another one waits, standing, for her to finish her speech, so as not to distract the attention of the room by returning to his seat.

Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.
Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.
Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.
Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.

Councillor Nicu Ion felt more respected in the U.K. than he ever did in Romania

Three Romanians have been elected in the City Council following the elections on the 6th of May 2021: Alexandra Bulat, Cambridgeshire Labour County Councillor, Angela Perescu-Boatwright, Exmouth, Devon Liberal-Democrat Town Councillor, and Nicu Ion, who got 66% of votes in the Elswick ward of Newcastle, the largest city in north-eastern England, with a population of over 300.000.

Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.

Nicu Ion, 43, is now on a four-year mandate. He has been living in England with his family for ten years, and last year he became a citizen.

In 2008, when he still lived in Constanța, Romania, Nicu wanted to join the Romanian National Liberal Party (PNL). He had participated in a training programme held by an American organisation, which had convinced him that Romanians should become involved in politics if they want to change things from the inside. He went to the local PNL headquarters, and a man gave him a subscription form to fill in.

As he was writing, the man told his co-workers: “Oi, look at that, now the Roma want to become Liberals!” “Yeah, imagine that, Liberal Roma,” the others laughed. Nicu went out the door without signing the form.

Ten years later, his British colleagues in the Labour Party appreciated his dedication to politics and community life, particularly since few Romanians vote in the local elections in the U.K. (or other European countries where they live, for that matter), as we noticed since we began work on our project. Many of them don’t know they have a right to vote as residents, or don’t care about U.K. politics.

Nicu has felt more respected in the U.K. than he ever did in Romania. “The opportunities England offered me as an immigrant have been more numerous and more varied than any I’ve ever had in Romania as a citizen,” he says.

Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.

“In Romania, racism is a day-to-day thing. Here [in England] no one’s ever called me ‘the Romanian,’ ‘the Roma’ or anything in that vein. People want to see what kind of a person you are, what skills you have, not what ethnicity or nationality you belong to.”

“We never had any doubts that we were Roma, but we weren’t encouraged to say it in public.”

Nicu Ion was born in 1979 in a Roma family in the Tomis Nord neighbourhood in Constanța. His father was a forklift operator in the port during communism, then opened a small workshop where he copied keys and repaired lighters and umbrellas. His mother looked after the family’s four children — one girl and three boys.

They had never been rich, but when his father fell ill the family faced serious financial hardships. Nicu was in highschool when he started working — computer repairs, translations, helping the American pastor at the Baptist Church in Constanța.

During communism, he never faced direct discrimination, because assimilation was the Party policy. "We were all Romanian," Nicu says. The obverse of that, though, was that he never had the space to think about his Roma identity and discuss it. He did not speak Romani and it was only by chance that he learned that his paternal grandparents had been part of the ironsmith Roma group, while his maternal grandparents had been lăutari, popular music performers.

He knew that part of his family had been deported to Transnistria, but the Roma Holocaust and persecutions were taboo, a subject his grandmother never spoke of. It was only when the children fussed over their food that she told them "I used to eat potato peels, you know!"

“We never had any doubts that we were Roma, but we weren’t encouraged to say it in public, because our parents wanted to protect us from discrimination,” Nicu remembers. “In school, you were signed up as Romanian, because during communism the party line was ‘Romania is also inhabited by ethnic Hungarians, Germans, and other minorities.’ We were under ‘other minorities.’”

Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.

“It’s hard to live your life trying to prove to others that you’re their equal”

In 2001, Nicu began to study law, but abandoned university because he was too busy — he had to work to support himself and he had become involved in various local associations fighting for Roma rights. He later graduated from the Journalism Faculty of the Ovidius University in Constanța.

Activism for Roma rights brought him satisfactions and a feeling of belonging. When he was in high school, Nicu understood he had to work more than Romanian pupils to prove that he was “not like the others.” As a university student, he saw his family being judged for their skin colour: his brother constantly got told the position was no longer available when he showed up for a face-to-face interview, and someone less qualified was preferred over Nicu for a notary’s assistant job.

“This feeling of being different was an inner drama, because I was struggling against my own identity, I didn’t like being Roma,” he says. “You have this stigma you live with. It’s like a complex you try to sweep under the carpet, constantly proving that you’re not like the others, that you don’t start every sentence with haoleu, the way Roma are perceived to do in the collective mentality. And it’s hard to live your life trying to prove to others that you’re their equal.”

His work with the association also provided him with a deeper understanding of the injustice Roma people are facing in Romania. In the early 2000s, he handled the case of a young woman in Constanța who, during a caesarean performed to deliver her first baby, was sterilised. The doctors told her one was enough for her.

In 2004, Nicu became a local human rights monitor with the Romani Criss Association, which encouraged him to participate in conferences and training workshops. He worked with evacuated families and people whose homes were abusively demolished, he saw a young man be shot by the police, people being beaten by police and gendarmerie agents, he observed educational segregation, with Roma children classes where the quality of teaching was lower, and he witnessed Roma being denied access to public places, like restaurants and clubs.

Throughout the years, the injustice experienced by Romanian Roma people left a deep impression on him. In 2010, when his daughter was two years old, he handled the case of several families in the town of Miercurea Ciuc whose houses had been set on fire by ethnic Hungarians, the reason for the persecution being that they grazed their horses on the communal pasture.

The families fled and hid in the forest, where Nicu and the other activists who came to help found them. They were sleeping on pieces of cardboard, covered with plastic foil, and a little girl the age of Nicu’s daughter, barefoot and only wearing a t-shirt, was drinking water from a puddle. When he tells me the story, Nicu’s eyes grow moist.

“What’s the difference between me and them?” he wondered. “That could be me right there, that could be my little girl. You feel this sort of revolt welling up inside you: Wait, this isn’t fair! What did these people do wrong, after all? Why all the hatred? How is it their children’s fault? What chances do they have of breaking out of this vicious circle of poverty? Society leaves you no open door, it pushes you away to live isolated, somewhere on the fringe.”

“I don’t want to raise my child in a racist, corrupt society.”

Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.

Nicu and his wife Daniela met in 2004, at a class held by the ARAS Association. They were married that same year, and in 2008 their daughter Alesia was born. In Romania, Daniela worked as a health mediator and educator for Roma communities. They both had successful careers and a middle-class income, but they were saddened by the injustice they witnessed day after day and by the lack of solutions.

“I realised people will never be able to break out of the poverty and social exclusion they are living with, as long as authorities show no interest in helping the Roma,” Nicu says. “I realised things wouldn’t change anytime soon in Romania and I didn’t want to raise my child in a racist, corrupt society. The best thing I can do for my little girl is bring her up in a society where you are evaluated based on your skills, not your ethnicity, your connections, your political party.”

During the years he worked as an activist for Roma rights and collaborated with (or, sometimes, fought to oppose) the Romanian authorities, Nicu understood two things: that state institutions are deeply corrupt, and that Romanian society is unjust and racist. “Whenever went to the Constanța County School Inspectorate, the first thing the Inspector General told me was: ‘Here to bring problems again?’” The “problems” were the discrimination and segregation of Roma children.

In 2012, Daniela and Nicu sold their furniture, their fridge, their car, and the plot of land they had bought outside Constanța, where they had been planning to build a house, and left for the U.K. They thought, if they have nothing left behind in Romania, they would not be tempted to return.

They settled in north-eastern England, in Newcastle upon Tyne, and spent the first months sleeping on a mattress on the floor of an apartment they shared with another Romanian family. Though Nicu spoke excellent English, finding a job wasn’t easy, because after joining the EU Romania and Bulgaria were subject to several labour market restrictions until 2014.

During those first few months, Nicu collected scrap iron, because it was the easiest way to prove that he was working in the U.K. and thus qualify for a National Insurance Number. Then he found a job as a delivery driver for an Indian restaurant, later handed out flyers, and in 2014, when the labour restriction were lifted, he and Daniela were hired on regular employment contracts at Domino’s Pizza — Daniela in the kitchen, Nicu doing deliveries.

Their life was completely different from the one they had had in Romania, where Nicu had monthly meetings with representatives of the OSCE, the European Commission or other international organisations, participated in government meetings, was invited to embassy events. “I accepted any job, thinking I wouldn’t do it for the rest of my days,” Nicu says. “We came [to the U.K.] to start a new life, so I figured it was a necessary step to go on to the next level.”

Daniela and Nicu furthered their university studies in the U.K.

In 2014, at his daughter’s school play for Christmas, Nicu was invited by the school governor to join the governing body as a parent representative. There he was appreciated and, before long, he was offered a position as a teaching assistant.

It was strenuous work — Nicu had to be prepared to teach several subjects. Around the same time, his wife Daniela, who was 31 at the time, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was the hardest time in his life for Nicu, who was his family’s sole support, all the while trying to keep up with workplace demands.

In 2017, after Daniela finished her treatment, Nicu applied to university, because he wanted to become a Math teacher. He spent two years studying at the Newcastle College University Centre, following two pathways — children and young people, and leadership and management. He went on for another year at Durham University, where his got his Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), which qualified him to work as a teacher.

In 2020, he began teaching math to secondary school classes — 7th to 11th grade — for a net salary of about 2.000£ a month.

Daniela, Nicu’s wife, started to study healthcare practice at Newcastle College University Centre in 2017 and graduated in 2019. Now, at 39, she is a first-year nursing student at Northumbria University, with a specialisation in learning disabilities.

She spent a while working as a translator for a company that collaborates with the NHS, and currently she does practice at an institution for children with autism.

In the years since their move to the U.K., Daniela and Nicu have constantly supported Romanian immigrants, welcoming them to stay in their home, helping them get their documents and find jobs. There was a period when their apartment looked like a notary’s office, with Romanians queuing to ask for their assistance. They always did this pro bono, because they wanted to discourage the Romanian networks in the U.K. taking advantage of fellow Romanians.

Now, Daniela, Nicu and other families in their community provide consultancy for Romanian immigrants at the Holy Trinity Neoprotestant Church they founded in Newcastle last year. Nicu is the church leader and has set up a community centre in the same building, where Romanians can come ask for support, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

The religious community at the Holy Trinity Christian Church in Newcastle

Image by Cosmin Bumbuț. United Kingdom.

Nicu plays the electronic piano in the worship group at the Holy Trinity Christian Church in Newcastle, in which his brother also plays the acoustic guitar. Since the church was opened, Nicu spends much of his time here, with the Romanian community. There is a service each Sunday morning, sometimes also attended by Pastor George Dume from the Holy Trinity Church in London, and Daniela teaches children in Sunday school. One of the three preachers who speak during the service is Nicu.

On Thursdays, the women have their meeting, which Daniela calls “the support group,” because they talk about their problems. Each Friday and Sunday they hold prayer and socialising evenings, and during the rest of the week a few men work on renovating the space. Sometimes Nicu cooks for the whole community gathered in church — the week we visited him, he made chilli con carne for twelve.

In Sunday school, Daniela discusses the parable of the unforgiving servant with the children. Some reply directly in English.

— Do you know the meaning of this word, “sow”?
— Something about pigs.
Is it farming?
— What does it mean that some seed fell along the path? — I don’t remember.

— What is a parable? — It’s like a story.
— What is a servant?

— A kind of help?
— What is the meaning of “wicked”? — Will we be eating soon?
— As soon as we finish reading.
Hurry up!

About fifteen children attend, aged nine to fourteen. Most of them have a hard time speaking Romanian — one of the girls doesn’t speak it at all — so Daniela teaches them more Romanian than religion. The children reply in Romanian, but between themselves they communicate in English, their native language, because most of them are born in the U.K. The room next door is for the “little league,” with children between three and nine years old, and next door there is a space for mothers and babies. After service, the parents and children stay for a snack and a cup of tea or coffee.

“Emotionally, we are attached to Romania”

Five years after Nicu settled in the U.K., the rest of his family joined him there — his parents, now retired, his two brothers, his sister, and their families. His brothers are both taxi drivers, while his sister is an artist creating limited-edition handmade toys. They all live in Newcastle.

Though they own no more property back in their country of origin, Nicu and his wife Daniela return there every year. “Emotionally, we are attached to Romania,” Nicu says. “We enjoy going there, but the enjoyment only lasts until you come up against the attitude of people you come into contact with. Romanians vent their frustrations on strangers — on the client at the corner store, on the other guy in traffic. One thing that stunned me when I was in Romania last time was the aggressiveness of drivers — the whole thing about flashing your headlights, coming up from behind aggressively, tailgating.”

Their daughter Alesia, now fourteen, does not identify with Romanian society, though she likes the places she sees there while on holiday with her parents. Some things, though, she finds incomprehensible. “Because she grew up in the U.K., she thinks like a Brit,” Nicu says. “We were at an outside table at a restaurant in Bucharest, near Romană Square, and a little boy around her age came to our table to beg. You could see he was malnourished and hungry, so I told him ‘Come sit down and eat with us.’ Alesia couldn’t understand what was happening, because she couldn’t imagine that a child her age was begging for food and being chased away by waiters.”

Alesia was shocked by other scenes in Bucharest: the old woman swaddled in layers of warm clothes begging by the university, on a hot summer day, on her knees, with an icon next to her, or the family who lived in an abandoned van under a bridge in the Pipera neighbourhood, next to modern buildings with offices for multinational companies. “Does that girl really sleep there?” she asked her father when she saw a teenager come out of the vehicle.

“There is poverty in the U.K. as well, but it’s very different from the poverty back in Romania,” Nicu says. “There are children who sometimes go without eating for a whole day because their parents don’t care for them, or because they come from broken families, but in such situations here, the state intervenes.”

Only 10% of the votes for him were cast by Romanians

Nicu was always centre-left on the political spectrum: He believes that the differences between the social strata can only be reduced through the direct intervention of the state, which is responsible with giving its citizens equal rights and opportunities.

He never felt politically represented in Romania. “The Romanian Social-Democrat Party (PSD) has proven, with a lot of what it did, that it isn’t really centre-left,” he says. “This left-right positioning is irrelevant in Romanian politics, because we have right-wing parties that push for left-wing measures and left-wing parties that push for right-wing measures.”

After settling in the U.K., Nicu felt represented by the ideology of the Labour Party — supporting vulnerable communities, migrants, families and diversity, caring for the environment, providing decent working and living conditions and building social services so that they are accessible to everyone.

In 2017, he joined the Labour Party and started getting their e-mails. When he saw they were looking for candidates in the local elections, Nicu applied, thinking it was a way to finally meet his fellow party members. He was sent a message with the date and time of the interview.

The Newcastle members of the Labour Party were impressed with his work as an activist back in Romania. He didn’t meet the minimum membership time nor the experience requirement as a candidate, but they applied for an exemption at the regional centre so they could put him on the list. Meanwhile, they encouraged him to become involved in party activities, participating in events and conferences.

Nicu began going from door to door to talk to people about their issues. The Brits are used to this canvassing practice and expect politicians to meet people in the street. Nicu also received help from the Romanian community around him and organised two events on the subject of human rights.

He first ran for a seat in the City Council in 2019, in a Newcastle ward where votes traditionally go to another party than his. Though he knew his chances were slim (the Labour Party estimated it would get 300 votes), Nicu invested time and effort into the campaign. He did not win, but he got 1.000 votes — three times more than his colleagues had expected.

In May 2021, he ran for Elswick and won, with 1.599 votes, while his Conservative contender only got 436. Nicu estimates ten percent of his votes came from Romanians, while the rest were attracted from various other communities. “Sadly, a lot of Romanians didn’t sign up to vote because they don’t know how to, they have no idea they have a right to vote, or they don’t care, so I couldn’t have got my mandate based on the Romanian vote,” he says.

“The Brits see the position of councillor more as a civic duty”

Every month, Nicu attends the Council meeting at city hall, where he speaks up in favour of various motions. He is a councillor in the urban planning committee, in the committee that supervises public spending, in the one for the children under the care of the state, and in the one for religious education, in which all communities in the city are represented.

The most important part of his work are public meetings with the citizens, where locals complain about their housing troubles, garbage removal or the disturbance of public order in their neighbourhood. Nicu contacts the people responsible and tries to solve their complaints.

“The community expects their locally elected representative, whether a councillor or an MP, to be in the service of the citizen, which is why they bring up problems like ‘They didn’t come pick up our rubbish, you know,’” Nicu says. “We can contact another councillor or the Council, we don’t just tell them ‘Uh, that’s not in my job description, go to desk seven.’”

His pay as local councillor doesn’t exceed 1.000£ a month, but Nicu’s goal in going into politics wasn’t material gain. “You are there to represent certain communities, to make decisions for the wellbeing of society, no one joins the Council to make money,” he says. “The Brits see the position of councillor more as a civic duty, not as a job.”

“The first Roma candidate elected as councillor in the U.K.”

Since moving to England, Nicu has only faced racism in Romanian communities. “When they heard I was a teacher, they asked ‘What, and you teach Romanian children?’ From the start, they couldn’t imagine that I, a Gypsy, was teaching British children. Then they heard I was a math teacher and their eyes went wide — I mean, how is that even possible? After I became a councillor, they kept wondering out loud: ‘You are a councillor?’”

“I went to a meeting of an organisation where a Romanian woman works and the Brits there, in their polite way, introduced me: ‘He will be our next Mayor.’ At which the Romanian replied: ‘Oh well, then I’ll just go and join the Council too.’ In the sense of ‘If this guy managed to, I can do that and a lot better.’”

After Nicu was elected councillor in the city of Newcastle, a Romanian in the U.K. wrote on Facebook: “He doesn’t represent me.” Nicu jokingly comments that would be impossible anyway, because he lives in a different ward. Another Romanian said he would like to know how he made it into the Council, while another commented: ‘What does he teach, anyway? 1+1?’

In November 2021, Nicu organised a consular caravan for Romanians at the Holy Trinity Christian Church in Newcastle, and someone involved in the organisation of the event told him: “That’s a good choice of place, it’s the hub of the Roma community.” Nicu replied: “It’s not a hub for the Roma community, it’s a hub for the Romanian community, because it’s not only Roma people that come to this church. And even if that were the case, we are Romanian citizens, there should be no distinction.”

“That’s the one Roma guy who made it,” is another narrative following Nicu wherever he goes. The British media portrayed him as the “First Roma candidate who won [a] seat [in a City Council].” I ask him if he is bothered by this attitude.

“I do understand there is an interest for it, because it is hard indeed for a Roma person to succeed in politics — it’s unpopular for a party to have Roma representatives. People want to know how it happened, and I actually consider it an honour that they want to learn about my story and don’t claim it’s no exception when, indeed, it is an exception.”

What does bother him, though, is that the poor political representation of the Roma is insufficiently discussed. “In Romania there is only one party that has promoted and supported Roma MPs, and it was the PSD. All the other parties, no matter how democratic and pro-European they want to appear as, didn’t support any Roma, not even the new USR-PLUS.”

Free consultancy for Romanian immigrants

Each Monday morning brings a commotion to the community centre in the Holy Trinity Church, where Nicu and the other volunteers have improvised a consultancy office in the kitchen. Romanian immigrants come here to get assistance with various bureaucratic grievances.

At 10 in the morning, about a dozen Romanians are already lined up: A man has problems with his insurance after being involved in a car accident, another wants to apply for a loan, a 12-year-old girl who came to the U.K. with her parents a year ago couldn’t be signed up for school, a woman found that a whole wall of her house has fallen and the landlord refuses to repair it, two young people didn’t get their post-Brexit Pre-Settled status and are now trying again, invoking the law for joining family.

Nicu helps them as a councillor when their problems have to do with housing or education, but he also supports those who don’t speak English enough to navigate the British administrative system. A handful of volunteers from his community have joined him, including Daniela’s sister, and this morning they are all making phone calls in English to various British services in the name of those who ask for their aid and can’t speak it.

What surprises me most is when a Romanian man asks Nicu to get him an online appointment with the Romanian consulate, and the volunteers tell me he is not the only one who has come to them with this issue. Someone not used to the internet has a hard time interacting with their website, econsulat.ro, and has no option for a phone appointment. Because of that, in the U.K. there are Romanians who take advantage of fellow countrymen, asking for money even to get them appointments at the consulate.

Since his move to the U.K., Nicu has constantly tried to sabotage such networks, which is why he provides free support for Romanian immigrants. Since their church and community centre opened in Newcastle, he was able to do so in an organised manner, with the help of the volunteers gathered around him. And since he has become a councillor, he has more ways to provide assistance.

“What frustrates me is that the Romanian state does nothing to support such initiatives,” Nicu Ion says. “We do this of our own will, with no institutional support, with our own resources — our rented space, our printer, our paper. The state is unable to provide consultancy for Romanian immigrants in the U.K., but it could identify people who provide assets or local Romanian associations and help them get organised.”

On the 3rd of March, 2022, Nicu Ion spoke about the situation in Ukraine in the City Council meeting, condemning Vladimir Putin’s act of expansionist aggression and asking the U.K. government to allow all refugees to join their families. He has also called on Newcastle locals to donate food, blankets and medical consumables, which he will transport in person to Ukraine early next week.

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