The secret challenges that women face immigrating to the UK

Elena school picture

Elena Cowie eating with her father and sister, Natalia, in November 1995. Courtesy of Elena Cowie.

When Elena Cowie left Russia to study English for a few short weeks abroad, she never expected it to end with a holiday romance.

Cowie grew up in the suburbs of Moscow with her younger sister, Natalia. She recalls the area being somewhat industrial, but with lovely summers and a park where locals could ski in the winter. As an adult, Cowie was a part-time librarian and taught an afterschool drama group while raising her two sons, Luka and Nikita.

After Cowie’s first divorce in 1995, she traveled to Bournemouth for a month to study at Southbourne School of English. Between the seminary lessons and holiday excursions, Cowie met a Scottish man named Alan. Their romance quickly blossomed, and when Cowie returned to Russia they continued a relationship over Skype. Alan soon asked Cowie to marry him, so with the blessing of her two sons she left on a six-month single-entry visitor visa to England.

Immigration to the UK has been steadily increasing for years, according to a study by the Migration Observatory. However, these aspiring citizens face rampant anti-immigrant sentiments when they arrive. In the UK, 77% of people want immigration reduced, and 56% want it “reduced a lot.” Political activist Richard Seymour wrote in The Guardian that those people are convinced that immigrants have taken something from them, and there is social resentment over “undeserving” people getting resources unfairly.

These studies show that nearly half the immigrant population entering the UK is female. For over 100 years, the British women’s suffrage movement has passed laws for equal rights. The United Kingdom is 15th in the world for gender equality according to a report from the World Economic Forum, which can encourage women to immigrate there.

Cowie says that while Russian women generally have the same rights as their male counterparts, society’s attitudes are different towards each gender. The type of men Cowie grew up with had what she described as “superior decision making,” where women were looked after but did not make major choices in the household. She recalls her first husband making large purchases in their marriage without consulting her.

“When my husband bought a new car, he didn’t even talk to me before,” Cowie said. “He just bought the car and brought it in. And said, ‘Oh, by the way, that’s our new car outside.’ I was shocked. I said, ‘You could have checked about it with me before.’”

In addition to equality, women immigrants are leaving their countries for better economic opportunity. Between September 2013 and September 2014, the Migration Observatory states that 43% of non-British citizens reported coming to the UK to find work.

Roseli Romagnoli (third from left) eats with her family in Brazil. Courtesy of Roseli Romagnoli.

One such story comes from six thousand miles away.

Roseli Romagnoli grew up in the Brazilian countryside of Curitiba with her six siblings until the age of nine when her father passed away. At 44-years-old, Romagnoli’s mother became the sole caregiver of their family, and moved them to the capitol to seek treatment for one of the sisters with a hearing impairment. Romagnoli was inspired by her mother’s hard work and was encouraged by family to be independent. She worked as a nursing assistant and later a dental nurse before her husband wanted to move to England.

Romagnoli was hesitant to leave Brazil but wanted to support her husband’s dream. “My family said if you are married you are on the same boat,” Romagnoli said. “You help each other. You’re going to be okay wherever you are because you are family.”

The couple found England to be full of unexpected challenges. Though Romagnoli had taken private English lessons before, she struggled with conversational language.

“I came over to this country and it felt like I had never heard English,” Romagnoli said. “It was a bit harsh of an experience.”

The hardest part about the language barrier was accessing services like childcare. Romagnoli said that English childcare is expensive, and if you cannot afford it the government will not help.

Daisy Romagnoli is Romagnoli’s eldest daughter and current architecture student at Arts University Bournemouth. She says that services like childcare and healthcare are not well-advertised for non-English speaking people. “You have to chase after certain services to know a program is going on,” Daisy said. “If services were not well-advertised, [Romagnoli] wouldn’t know where to get specific help.”

There is substantial evidence about the difficulties migrants have accessing services which may itself then lead to strains on services because of late or inappropriate access, according to research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This is especially hard on women who come to England as stay-at-home mothers and are now thrust in to a workforce with lack of support for their children and a language they cannot speak. Additionally, these women are faced with greater discrimination in the workplace compared to their male counterparts.

These working immigrant women eventually experience culture shock, or a sense of anxiety when assimilating with a new culture. Cowie remembers often getting frustrated with cultural differences. “I felt dry [in Russia] and I was filling up with these new juices here,” Cowie said. “I was just struggling with English and I wanted people to speak Russian.”

Elena Cowie and her second husband, Alan, spend time together in October 2000. Courtesy of Elena Cowie.

Cowie also faced the stigma of marrying for citizenship, which is almost always aimed at the wife. She insisted she married Alan because she thought they would be good together, not to become a UK citizen. After their divorce, Cowie remained in Bournemouth because she said she saw a future for herself there but could leave it behind if she had to.

“I don’t feel like I have to be here and die here,” Cowie said. “I can quite easily move to a different country now. So, I have roots, but they’re not very deep.”

Both women have made it a priority to assimilate to English culture while still holding on to their traditions. The Romagnoli family takes annual holidays to Brazil to keep a link to their culture. Her daughters both speak Portuguese and English. Cowie joined a drama group at a local church. She helped with their Russian accents, and the group gave her a part in the play.

Still, there are times when they appreciate minor accommodations for non-English speakers.

Cowie’s favorite memory living in England was visiting the HMS Victory ship in Portsmouth. There were Russian leaflets to read along to during the English excursion, and it made her feel that her new home cared about her old one. “I love history and a lot of Russian places were destroyed in different wars and revolutions,” Cowie said. “It was a special moment on the boat.”

As for Cowie’s experience living in England, she says that being patient and understanding intentions has made the transition easier.

Romagnoli with her daughters Larissa (left) and Daisy (right). Courtesy of Roseli Romagnoli.

“There’s good people everywhere,” Cowie said. “Even if they don’t speak perfect English, they still show their kindness. Their friendship. Their sense of humor.”

Like many other immigrants who live in the UK as working mothers, they’ve made sacrifices. It’s a fine line between finding a new home and making a new life.

Romagnoli dreams of reuniting with family back in Brazil. However, she has no immediate plans to return to subtropical summers and life away from the UK, despite the challenges she’s overcome.

“I feel at home in England because we stayed, and we adapted,” Romagnoli said. “I feel so good when it’s raining. I love the rain. I feel good. I feel really, really happy when it’s raining.”