The life of a Romanian family with two children from the Romanian town of Roman was an obstacle course through the country’s post-Communist transitional period—poverty, corruption, nepotism. That was until they moved to the UK, began their studies and found work as nurses. Their son is now a medical student at Oxford, and their daughter is a midwife in a university hospital in Coventry.
This article has been created in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. Elena Stancu is a fellow of the Persephone Miel Fellowship 2021.
Cătălin Frandeș, 55, was a lathe operator from 1988 until 1993, at the County Small-Scale Industry Plant in Iași. In 1993, he moved to Murighiol, Tulcea County, with his wife Camelia; she was a substitute teacher, and he found work as a bartender at the village pub.
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His wife, Camelia Frandeș, now 54, graduated from the Metallurgy Faculty of the Iași Technical Institute in 1991. She couldn’t find work as an engineer, so after she got her degree she taught Romanian, French, and Latin in the Tulcean village of Dunavățu de Jos. They lived in a rented house in Murighiol for over two years, during which Camelia walked 14 kilometres each day, to and from school.
In 1994, they moved to Roman, a town in Neamț County, and spent a while living in Camelia’s parents’ house. They shared its three rooms with her parents, sister, and brother-in-law. The toilet was an outhouse, and the shower “outside, in a basin by the pump”. Laundry was done by hand — there was no washing machine.
“Hunger made us leave the country”
Camelia spent 12 years teaching Romanian and French in Sagna and Săbăoani, two villages near Roman, commuting by bus. She never “caught” a substitute position in town because, despite the testing, the good spots were taken by those with relations and money.
Her salary was small, as was Cătălin’s — he worked as an assistant at the Roman Psychiatry Hospital. Their daughter Ioana was born in 1998, and their son Andrei followed in 2000. They were paying instalments for a two-bedroom flat heated with a terracotta stove, which they had bought in Roman. In winter they brought firewood with a sled from Camelia’s parents’ and carried them up the stairs to the first storey. They had no car and no hope of ever buying one.
They could barely pay the instalments for their cooking stove, TV, fridge, washing machine and the apartment. They didn’t have enough money for food and diapers. They got help from Camelia’s parents who, having a garden, gave them onions, potatoes and other foodstuffs they produced. They bought one banana every two days and split it between their two children.
“You know how they say hunger is the best motivator? It’s true, it was hunger that made us leave,” says Cătălin 18 years later.
At the time, everyone did what they could to make ends meet: Camelia’s sister went to the market to sell cigarettes and underwear she bought from Europa, a commercial complex in Bucharest that had cheap goods in bulk. Cătălin tried it twice – carrying two travel bags full of school supplies, clothes and underwear, first by tram across Bucharest, then by train to Roman, and selling the contents to his co-workers for a small profit. “I was trying to hustle something up, make a little money,” he says.
In 1995 he signed up to one of the three private schools in Roman that “churned out nurses like they were conveyor-belt products”. Exams were just “a formality” (students pooled money to hold “a big lunch” for the commission), and Cătălin didn’t go to the classes too often, because during the same time he worked as an assistant.
In 1999, he won a position as a nurse in the Roman senior care home. On his first day on the job, one of his co-workers told him: “Really, Cătălin, at least a gold chain for the Doctor”. “Oh, of course!” he answered.
“Dad, if I promise to be good, will you come back home?”
In 2003, when he saw a poster in the Roman Hospital saying nurses were wanted in the UK for a salary of 11.500£ a year, Cătălin “got shaky knees”. He spoke English, so he called the number on the poster. He was called for an interview in Brașov.
When he left Romania, he was 37 and earned 80£ a month. In the UK he started off making fifteen times more. He worked as an assistant in a senior care home in Rugby, 134 kilometres from London, in 15-hour shifts, because he had a lot of debt to pay off: the instalments back in Romania, the money he had borrowed for his visa, his passport and the trips to Bucharest, the other money he had borrowed for the doctor’s regular bribe when he needed minor surgery, and more money he had borrowed to bury his mother, who had had a stroke a few months after Cătălin had moved abroad.
He was paid five pounds for each hour of overtime, and he looked at the clock in the patients’ dining room and thought: “One more hour and I can pay off one instalment.” In January 2014 he worked 314 hours — twice the regular, eight-hour-a-day schedule.
Camelia came to the UK in June 2004 and found work at the same care home in Rugby — at first washing dishes, then as a nurse. She missed her teaching career back in Romania. “It was my life’s passion to teach,” she said. “I used to do my job at the teacher’s desk, with a pen and the class record, and I came here to wash old people’s behinds.”
They didn’t plan on staying in the UK; they only intended to pay off their debts. They left Andrei, who was three, with Camelia’s parents, and Ioana, who was five, in the care of a neighbour, who was raising three other girls whose parents were working abroad. They were paying her 100 euros a month.
Back then, calls to their children were expensive; they bought phone cards and used the public library phone. One day, Ioana asked Cătălin: “Dad, if I promise to be good, will you come back home?”
“Job, commute, children — that was my life”
When they came back to Romania with sweets, dolls and toys, Ioana didn’t recognise her parents and didn’t want to come out and greet them. “We stayed outside the gate, holding the presents, until the woman who took care of her came to open,” Camelia remembers.
They had two weeks to get passports for the children, find plane tickets and return with them to the UK. They rented a two-room apartment in Rugby, close to the senior care home where they were working — until then they had split a rent with another Romanian family. They didn’t have a table yet, so they ate on newspapers. They bought the children second-hand toys, because they couldn’t fit too much in the two suitcases they brought along.
They signed up Andrei to kindergarten and Ioana to school, in a special class where the teacher taught the pupils Romanian. In the first months, Andrei wouldn’t stop crying. “One day he tells me: ‘Dad, something’s not right with this lady,’” Cătălin remembers. “‘Why, what does she do?’ ‘Well, she only ever speaks English.’”
The first ten years in the UK were hard on Camelia and Cătălin. They worked 270-280 hours a month as nurses, and Camelia had a second, two-hour-a-day job washing dishes, during which time the children were left home alone a few times a week.
One day, the police came to the senior home: Someone had reported them for leaving their small children unsupervised. They were visited at home by social workers, who checked the children’s living conditions, interviewed the parents and talked to the teachers at school. They were monitored for six months and told that, if it happened again, the social services would take their children.
Camelia quit her dishwashing job and started doing nightshifts, while Cătălin was working dayshifts. At seven in the morning, Cătălin walked the children, still in their pyjamas, to his workplace, left them at the reception and took over his first-floor shift, just as Camelia was finishing her shift at the ground floor and picking up the children to take them back home.
She gave them breakfast, washed them, dressed them and took them to school. Then she returned home and slept until 12, when she woke up and picked up Andrei, whom she left in front of the TV. She had two more hours of sleep before she had to bring Ioana back from school. She gave them lunch, made sure they did their homework, and in the evening took them with her to the senior care centre and left them at the reception. She worked twelve hours a day, from 8 in the evening to 8 in the morning.
Cătălin finished his shift at 8 in the evening (also working twelve hours), picked up the children from the reception, took them home, gave them dinner, got them ready for bed and tucked them in. In the morning, they started over.
In 2005, Cătălin studied for six months at the University of Northampton, 35 kilometres from Rugby, so he could have his nursing studies in Romania recognised. He didn’t have a driver’s license yet, so Camelia drove him to the university.
“Can you imagine? I worked 12 hours, then took the children to school in the morning, left on the 40-minute drive to take him to university, then slept in the car, where I had a duvet and a pillow, got back to Rugby, picked up the children from school, slept another two hours if I was lucky, then went off to start my nightshift. Job, commute, children — that was my life. We only had one thought in the UK: we wanted a better future for our children than what we had had. An education, a way of thinking.”
“I was one of the oldest students”
After he became a nurse, Cătălin was paid eleven pounds an hour, compared to the five he got as an assistant. He worked in two senior care centres and in a hospital in Rugby, and in 2010 he found his current job, at an agency.
Nurses are sent by the agency where they are needed — to hospitals or to the homes of patients, for administering treatment, making injections or applying bandages. Cătălin is paid better than a nurse with a permanent employment in a hospital — currently he makes between 2.500 and 3.000£ in net wages a month, depending on his work hours.
Work through the agency is unpredictable, particularly when he does house calls. He has found patients who had died in their house; others died while he was there. He drives over 1.000 kilometres a week to get from one address to another, covering several towns near Rugby, particularly Coventry, Kettering and Banbury.
Sometimes, his patients are Brexit voters who make mean remarks about immigrants while Cătălin changes their bandages. They begin by saying “It’s not about you guys, you’re doing a wonderful job, but ...” He even heard such a monologue in the home of an elderly man in the presence of the other nurse, also a Romanian, who had come to take care of his hygiene.
He knows many of the patients, because he gives them their treatment each day. As he takes his medical kit from the boot and puts on his white coat to enter a house, he tells us, amused: “He’s one of the ‘f------ foreigners’ guys.”
In 2013, when the children were in highschool, Camelia began studying Adult Nursing at the Coventry University. She was 45 when she sat for the entry exam. “I wanted my children to be proud of me and say ‘Wow, Mum got to a foreign country and went to university there,’” Camelia says. “I was one of the oldest students – 48 when I graduated. Never missed a class.”
Camelia is now 54 and works as a nurse at the Rugby St Cross Hospital, where she earns 1.300£ a month. Last year she became a student again – in Preceptorship, at the Coventry University, so she can become a mentor to beginner nurses. “See, I’m getting back to teaching again!” Camelia says.
“You have to accept people for what they are”
Camelia and Cătălin, who lived in Romania during Communism and the transitional period that followed, are sensitive to the differences in mentality between themselves and their children, who grew up in the UK.
“I come from a culture that can’t accept gay and lesbian people, but these children opened our eyes,” Camelia says, using the English words for the two groups. “We understood that we all have the same rights and that you have to accept people for what they are. Andrei opened our eyes a lot about racism, about accepting people as individuals. Every time we called someone ‘Gypsy’ he was revolted, and he still is if we do.”
If they had stayed in Romania, Camelia doubts that her children would have had the same mentality. Back when she was a student in Iași, foreign students had their own residence. “That was imposed by Communism, by the society we lived in.”
After the two brought their children to the UK, Camelia thought Ioana and Andrei were too thin, so she forced them to eat. “I kept pumping food into them, because that was what had been hammered into my head and what I did once I got here and could afford it: children should be fed. I used to cook chicken in cream sauce and whack them over the head with the spoon if they didn’t eat.”
Andrei, who has meanwhile become a vegetarian, can’t stand that dish anymore. During Communism, chicken in cream sauce was expensive food, because eggs, sour cream and chicken were very hard to come by. It was Camelia’s favourite, only cooked for special occasions. “When we got mizel with chips, it was something to celebrate,” she says. The mizel was three or four slices of salami that her parents threw into the pan among the potatoes.
Camelia’s parents couldn’t find enough food to buy, like many other families in Communist Romania. “I can’t say we were starving, but maybe I’d have wanted more. I would have wanted the food not to be stretched all the time — a potful of borscht for six days, or a potful of cabbage, or a potful of peas in which you only found one piece of meat, and you were never full. Maybe that’s why I pushed the children [to eat] and forced them to until I made them fat.”
In highschool, the children were overweight, and Camelia got a letter from the NHS urging her to contact their specialists, who could help Andrei lose weight. The children put their ambition to work and lost weight on their own: They asked their parents to stop buying them sweets, went on diets and exercised.
“If you work in the UK, you ... don’t have to worry about what you’re going to put on the table tomorrow”
Camelia and Cătălin have been British citizens since 2014, and their children, since 2016. The parents had to sit for a test of British history and geography, for which they spent several weeks preparing. In 2007, they bought a house in Rugby — it cost 157.000£, which they are paying off in 500-£ monthly instalments.
Ioana’s boyfriend is Afghan; Andrei’s girlfriend is French. When Noah, Ioana’s partner, is invited for dinner, Camelia doesn’t cook pork. She also got used to the fact that Andrei is a vegetarian, though she sometimes complains she doesn’t know what to cook for all these different tastes.
They were never the kind of Romanians to save up every dime — rather, they preferred travelling and “investing in the children”. For each winter holiday, they travelled with them to France, Germany or Switzerland, “anywhere there was snow”. Every summer, they took the children to Romania, to see Iași, Bucharest, Sighetu Marmației or the Black Sea Coast; they visited the Memorial of Pain, dedicated to victims of Communism, the Merry Cemetery in Săpânța village and many other places.
“If you work in the UK, you can afford all that and don’t have to worry about what you’re going to put on the table tomorrow,” Camelia says. “I can afford buying whatever I want, going on holiday, keeping two children in university.”
“If I hadn’t come to the UK, I probably wouldn’t have gone to university"
Andrei Frandeș, 22, is a third-year medical student at the University of Oxford. He was always good in Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, but did good in English too, because his father encouraged him to read.
He wanted to study Medicine at one of the best universities in the world, so he applied to Oxford, though his teachers told him his chances were slim. Many of the young people at Oxford come from rich families and went to private schools, while Andrei had gone to a public school.
In 2019, he was admitted to Oxford and is now preparing to become a psychiatrist or a neurologist, because he appreciates Oliver Sacks — a famous neurologist and writer. He read his first book by Oliver Sacks in Romanian, from his father’s bookshelf — The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Andrei and his sister, Ioana, learned to read Romanian on their own, since they never studied their mother tongue in school. “Sometimes I can guess from what the word sounds like if it has a hyphen or not, but I’m not always correct,” says Andrei.
When he was still in highschool and lived with his parents, Andrei spoke better Romanian, but since he moved to Oxford he forgot certain words, because he speaks English all the time. He and his sister only use Romanian when they argue or as a joke. “My British humour is more sarcastic, while Romanian humour relies more on swearwords. When Dad gets annoyed driving through Romanian, he gets all the swearwords coming out of his head.”
Before the pandemic, Andrei and his family visited Grandma Vica in Roman each year — the woman is now 88. “I really like where I was born, where I’m from in Romania,” says Andrei. “Even if I was raised in England, I’m still Romanian.”
When they go to Romania, the four of them sleep in Grandma’s house, since she wouldn’t dream of letting them go to a hotel, and use the outhouse or the “basin shower”. “I like going back there and realising that I’m very lucky [the words in English with which he and his sister pepper their Romanian speech will be italicised], that Mum and Dad worked very hard when they came to the UK,” says Andrei. “I’m not saying Romania is all about ‘Wow, people are so poor, look how they live around here — I think that’s disrespectful. I’m saying it’s different over there and it’s important for me to see how other people live and where I’m from.”
When he was little and met his cousins in Roman, he was surprised that the greatest wish of 13- or 14-year-olds was to make money — a preoccupation he didn’t have at that age, when they played football together or went to gather walnuts. “If I hadn’t come to the UK, I probably wouldn’t have gone to university; I’d have just stayed around the block with the guys. And I don’t mean ‘Wow, I came to the UK, I’m better than them.’ I’m just saying we had different opportunities.”
Andrei sees the contrasts between the UK and Romania, but doesn’t want to criticise his country of birth. “I know we have a corrupt health system, like in that documentary, Colectiv. What I hear from newspapers — how everything gets done with bribes. In England — completely different thing. The biggest difference is how the system works, if the Government takes money and doesn’t use it right, people won’t have the opportunity. Otherwise, when I meet them, Romanians are very beautiful, very generous people.”
His parents always insisted that he and his sister Ioana do well in school. They told them that is the only way to have a better life than they had. They encouraged them to read, though Cătălin was surprised when he asked for the compulsory holiday reading list for the children and the British teachers told him there is no such thing.
Andrei still reads a lot — literature and philosophy — though he is busy with his studies and has little free time. When we met him, he was reading Camus, Kafka, and Nabokov in English and Mircea Eliade in Romanian, because he wanted to work on his reading and writing.
His highschool colleagues weren’t pressured by their parents to do well in school or have exceptional results. Andrei says he only ever encountered this ambition in immigrant families, where the parents were poor and worked hard to build their wealth in the UK.
“Are you British or Romanian?”
The medical course fee in Oxford is 9.250£ a year, and Andrei took out a study loan, like most UK students. The loan is granted based on the parents’ income, and he gets 4.250£ a year, which he will return, in instalments, to the British state once he finds employment and earns more than 25.000£ a year.
He has a room of his own at Oriel College. He shares the bathroom on the corridor with his neighbour in the next room. The building has units with two rooms and one bathroom, and for every two units there is a kitchen where students can cook and store their food.
Andrei studies at Oriel College — the University of Oxford has 39 such colleges, initially a sort of fraternities founded in the 13th century, whose original purpose was to maintain discipline among students. Oxford colleges have accommodation, dining facilities, libraries, gyms and hold sports competition and socialising events. Belonging to a college is an important part of Oxford life.
A few days before our conversation, Andrei was asked by his colleagues at a party in Oxford: “Are you British or Romanian?” “I had to think a bit. They gave their opinion that if I’ve lived for 18 years in the UK, I’m a Brit by now. But they don’t know what it means to come from a different country and live in a new one. I don’t feel exactly British, I don’t feel exactly Romanian; it’s somewhere in the middle. But I’m proud to be Romanian and know my history. Mum and Dad raised me like that, as a Romanian.”
Andrei says he began reading about Romania and thinking more about his identity since he has been studying at Oxford: “How can you be a Romanian if you’ve never lived in Romania, and how can you be English if you’ve been raised by Romanian parents?”
The conversation with his colleagues started from the fact that Andrei speaks perfect Oxford English and anyone who doesn’t know him personally would think he is a Brit. When he introduces himself as Andrei, people think he has French origins. “You’re not always seen the same way as a Frenchman and as a Romanian,” he says.
At the same time, he has spoken to his father about the negative comments of Romanians in the country about those living abroad. “I know there are people in Romania who think those who left the country are traitors. I was three when I left. It’s not my fault my Romanian isn’t perfect and I don’t know all of Romania’s history. Of course I know the history of the UK, since I went to school there, and yes, sometimes I haven’t felt a part of the greater Romanian community, or the greater British community.”
“When I was little, I thought it was so hard to be a foreigner at school”
Ioana Frandeș, 24, studied at the College of Nursing and Midwifery of West London University and graduated in December 2020. Right after graduation, she sent her CV to four hospitals and was accepted by all four.
She started working as a midwife four months later, at University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire, after getting duly registered. Ioana, now at the start of her career, makes 1.600 to 2.000£ a month, depending on her hours and whether she has night or day shifts.
In the UK, midwives work with mothers from the 16th week of pregnancy to the 28th day after delivery, monitoring the pregnancy, assisting in birthing, providing advice on childcare and breastfeeding. After her training period, Ioana wants to be a birth centre coordinator and teach students in midwifery.
Ioana is being mentored by Claudia Anghel, a Romanian midwife whose face became a symbol in the UK during the pandemic. She was one of the 12 NHS employees to feature in a campaign through which British citizens thanked medical staff for their efforts. Claudia’s face appeared on billboards in public spaces, on buildings, on buses and in crowded stations in the UK.
Ioana wants to improve her Romanian and has asked Claudia to speak to her in Romanian when they are alone. “When I was little, I thought it was so hard to be a foreigner at school and there was so much bullying that I wished I could have been British and nothing else. I was annoyed that my name was so different. Now I’m feeling very lucky to speak two languages.”
In highschool, Ioana was bullied by her British schoolmates. “I don’t think I had an accent, but they knew I was from Romania because my name was different — I was a little fat, too. They laughed at me, or called me fat or a foreigner. They said, like, ‘go back to your own country’.”
Ioana had good grades and was in the top of her class in English. A teacher told her that pupils who are not native speakers of a language and make an effort to learn it end up speaking it better than their native-speaker classmates.
Her parents pushed her towards studying Medicine, though Ioana didn’t want it. After highschool, she applied to several universities, but while she was on holiday in Romania with Camelia and Cătălin she started crying and told them it wasn’t what she wanted. Her parents didn’t take it badly – they encouraged her to do whatever she wanted, which surprised her.
“I always felt this huge pressure to do well in school, because [our parents] always told us we came to the UK to have more opportunities,” Ioana says. “Which, yes, I can understand, and I’m happy we tried so hard and they always pushed us, but I definitely felt the pressure.”
“I felt so safe like an English, I started to lose my Romanian”
Last year Ioana went to visit Grandma Vica in Roman with her Afghan boyfriend, Noah, born and raised in England. She told her grandmother not to cook pork, since he is a Muslim.
Grandma waited for them with borscht and stuffed peppers, and when Noah asked for a second helping of borscht “he became her friend”. She had him chop her veggies for the Olivier salad, spoon the koliva into plastic cups for a commemoration service and help her around in the garden, and the young man did a decent job of it, though they could only communicate through gestures.
“When we go to Romania, I have a lot of anxiety speaking Romanian,” Ioana says. “Like, when I went there with Noah I was so afraid to speak Romanian with other Romanians, because they know I make mistakes, and if we went to a store or a restaurant they stare at me when I don’t know what to call something and I feel really anxious. Vica understands when we make mistakes, but other, like, strangers, they look at you and think ‘Why does she speak like that?’”
Ioana doesn’t know how to use the Romanian politeness pronouns, which don’t have an equivalent in English, and she’s afraid she is being rude to elderly people or too formal with young people. Sometimes her colleagues at the hospital ask her to help with interpretation when they have Romanian patients who can’t speak English. Many Romanian women there ask her “But you make these mistakes, where are you from?” or “How many years have you lived here?”
When she was still in university, she spoke Romanian with patients, but since she began working as a midwife and has to ask mothers for consent, she prefers explaining the medical procedures in English, to make sure she doesn’t get anything wrong.”I know they’ll see I don’t speak very good Romanian and they’ll ask me lots of things, so I always start the conversation by saying ‘I can speak Romanian, but I make a lot of mistakes.’”
Since she met Claudia, her mentor, Ioana feels closer to Romania and her ethnic identity. One night, when she and Claudia were in charge of the birth centre, a British colleague jokingly commented that Romanians were coordinating the whole hospital, and Ioana felt proud.
“I had a hard time in school, I was trying so hard to be English, so people don’t do this recognise thing,” she says. “Now that I start to have a relate with my identity back in Romania, I like it better this way. Like, before I felt so English. Even with Andrei, the two of us talk in English, it’s easier for us. I felt so safe like an English, I started to lose my Romanian.”
Each winter, Grandma Vica sends them a “care package” as her Christmas gift. Two big boxes with jars of aubergine spread with honey fungus, pickled red peppers, tomato paste, preserved green breans from her garden, dried herbs (parsley, orache, lovage and dill from Grandma’s courtyard), walnuts, garlic and an Eastern Orthodox Christian calendar.
Delivery costs more than the material value of the parcel, but these pickles and preserves prepared by Vica are worth much more for her children: they bring to the house in Rugby the smells and tastes of Roman.
Camelia unpacks them gingerly and lines up the jars in the kitchen. Three of them have broken during transport: “I won’t tell Vica, it would make her so sad.”
When she thinks of Romania, Camelia remembers the smells in the Nicolina open-air market in Iași. “I miss those heaped stalls, that autumn smell, the green tomatoes, pickled cucumbers, herbs, that teeming of merchants selling anything and everything, going into the fish hall, the cheese hall, with all those people saying ‘Buy this milk,’ ‘Buy this cabbage’ and we end up buying things we don’t need, because it smells of Romania.”