How Moldova lost millions of its roses

“Valera! Radu! Wake up!”.

Two boys sleeping together on a double bed do not stir. The bright coloured Chinese blanket is kicked to the floor, they don’t need it any more. It’s five in the morning and the sun is already high.

“Wake up at once you lazy lot”, a woman shouts, “your Dad’s already up on the hill”.

The boys barely eat and start to make their way up. They are joined by 50 or so others – boys and girls from the age of 8 upwards, the older of them them swearing under their noses.

It’s 12 May 1982 and village Syrma in South Moldova is at the height of rose and lavender picking season. The children will collect one bag of the scented petals and then go to school. “You have to cut the heads off quickly”, Feda says to his brother, “to retain most of the oil”.

The fields are a sea of purple and pink, the flowery smell is carried by the air and the children think this moment will never end.

I met the boys’ parents during my PhD research 15 years ago and I am here to visit them again. Valera lives in Tyuman, Siberia and Radu, based in Warrington, UK , is also here for a week. Although the brothers are now 5300 kilometres apart they often meet in the virtual space on Skype. Despite the modern technology, their wives and children have yet to meet in flesh.

“How do you find England?”, I enquire. Radu’s wife Olga treads carefully. “We have recently moved a house but I am not sure of the neighbours”. Apparently, they told social services that the kids are often on their own. “It’s the shift times”, she complains. “I have to go out before Sasha returns home”.

It’s estimated that between 600, 000 to 1 million of Moldovans have left the country since 1990s. For a small country once counting around 4.5 million this is a big deal. The devastating effects of migration have recently been covered by a documentary by the Journeyman Pictures (link below). It means that one in 5 people now lives outside the borders and they are not all young. Men of all ages seek temporary work in construction and manual labour all over Russia whilst majority of women, young and old opt for Western Europe or Italy.

Syrma will not take down a building which was once meant to be a place of worship

If anyone epitomises the high stakes, complexities and interconnectedness of post-Soviet and pan European diaspora – it is the mobile, multilingual Moldovan of any age. Most grew up learning both Russian and Romanian. Should they decide to immigrate they would have tried two or three different countries before they settled down.

Statistics show that most of the emigres tend to have middle or higher education (particularly women) unfortunately ending up in lower skilled, poorly paid jobs. You are likely to find them in services, personal care, agriculture or warehousing.

It’s not unusual for siblings to be scattered anywhere between Turkey and Ireland, making family reunions difficult. But what makes this disapora different from those between the two big wars is that women now make heartbreaking choices. They often leave their husbands, who fear change or drink too much, behind. It is not unheard of for mothers to put their small children into care of older brothers or extended relatives. Neighbours are often called upon to cure the cries of distraught children at night.

The thing that unites most of the diaspora, however, is the cash flow that props up the economy through the money sent to children, husbands or sick relatives as well as holidays spent back home and investments into ‘that future dream house’.

Only a few bushes of the large rose fields remain on the hill today

“What happened to the roses once you collected them?” I ask Sasha whilst we were walking up the hill yesterday. “They were quickly loaded onto the trucks and driven to the Roza complex. The factory site had its’ own workers’ village – with two grand pillars adorning the entrance. All the technology was there, with a distillery tower and a cooling vat – I remember my father being very proud of it at the time. Of course we did not see much of the produce ourselves, with the essential oil being shipped to Moscow and then sold onto perfume houses around the world”.

We reached the top and there were only a few bushes of rose scattered on the wild meadow full of sage and thyme coming out from rough, unkept ground.

“The whole landscape has changed, entire livelihood of one generation has been swallowed up by past, into a black hole, it seems”. Sasha pondered. “I know it sounds silly, but it annoys me most that my parents don’t even have any photos of the fields. They used to look beautiful in spring. I see them in my dreams sometimes.”

Later on, I drove past the ruins of the Rosa factory. Tall weeds were ingrown into the factory, a concrete basin outside had a blackened oily build up and it was so still, only the poplars at the far back dared to move. Two lovers passed me by looking suspiciously at a woman with a camera

Pillars to Roza factory were recently painted but there are only ruins behind

I carried on to the nearby park where a man with a faded cardboard sign was selling two poetry lines for 5 lei. I asked for a poem about a factory but he said he could only do love, nature, beauty and so on.

I sat on the bench with remnants of sunflower seeds and thought about social workers and teachers I work with back in UK. Their efforts to support families’ wellbeing and prevent breakdowns. The British drive to protect children from neglect, harm and sexual exploitation. What to make of a Moldovan family at the time like this, how to support a child whose cousins and grandparents live only on Skype.

How to view an ageing woman who has a husband in a country that no one has ever heard of and she now lives in a multi-occupancy house? How to get your neighbours open up to you or public services about their background, worries and needs.

Fedor is in the park most days, selling 2 lines of poetry for 5 lei.

This is another reason why European countries and their neighbours should work closer, not drift away from each other. Understanding that our stories increasingly stretch far beyond borders of one country should shape our future governments and services. Enable emotional, social and bureaucratic ‘eco-systems’ speak to each other so that something new, better can come out of it.

Click to access Moldova.pdf


356 Years later and we end up with the Poles and the White Other.

It’s taken 90 years for the word ‘migrant’ to settle into the English language describing someone or something that moved from place to place. Dictionaries will tell you that this happened circa 1670 to 1760, sometimes between the secret treaty of Dover and the Seven Years War, both involving dodgy dealings between the French and English.

Only much later have the migrant become equivalent with agricultural or itinerant workers or people born outside their adopted new country. A suggestion has also been made about migrants moving seasonally for a better climate but this surely applied to animals and birds leaving British Isles dare I guess.

Whoever was moving from place to place and whatever the reason, there’s been more and more of them, a staggering 3.3% of world population is living outside the country of their birth according to UNFPA today.

Until about 1990, Britain saw more people leaving its shores compared to those coming in. But this was set to change due to many reasons – affordability of travel being one and opening borders between more and more European countries another – of many other indicators.

What politicians and commentators won’t tell you is that a good chunk of the migration into UK still continues to be from the old and new Commonwealth Countries – a surprising 49%. Another 40% is split equally between the Old and New EU – the New EU sometimes also called Eastern European or the EU Other (Oliver Hawkins, Migration Stats Feb 16).

So next time you watch that BBC question time or Minority Report – count how many times the word migrant is used to describe a Pole, a Bulgarian, Romanian or a Roma – as opposed to French, Greek or Indian. (Last time I counted it was 25 more times).

Ask any public sector agency how many of these ‘migrants’ do they deal with I bet they won’t be able tell you. Thanks God we have the likes of the Sun and Daily Mail to remind us of the figures!

The categories for East European and White Other remain largely blank on Census sheets. And many new communities living in Britain – parents and NHS patients continue to be puzzled – perhaps if they were asked whether were European and what was their ethnicity, language or culture – the answer might be a little bit more enthusiastically given. After all, all these monitoring forms palaver is for the purposes of establishing Equality!

There – we would see ourselves sitting proudly alongside the French, German and perhaps Catalan – which is what we had all desired in those cold months of 1989.

Perhaps we are dumb for not raising our hand and challenging the current debate. But hang on a minute – that’s not what Slovaks, Polish, Czechs, Hungarians and Lithuanians do. We like to complain privately – in our own living rooms – just like in the old days. Or perhaps we are just too busy working all the shifts on offer only not to be deemed ‘vulnerable to benefit tourism’.

For those who do want to find out a bit more about these new Europeans who never describe themselves as migrants, check out the Facebook pages of Nash Dom, Slovak and Czech Clubs, EWA CIC, Polish Expats Association, CEE Mediation Consultancy and many other great organisations that are doing their best to empower these communities. Perhaps one day they’ll find their way onto the mainstream TV and media.

Shall we wait for it to happen ‘naturally’?






This article was written a few months ago but its content is even more relevant after the Brexit vote and in the context of 57% increase in racist and hate attacks.

“Was this Britain? Every group of people I passed was speaking Russian. The shops were full of black bread, pickled cucumbers and vodka, the faces were Slavic”.

I could go on but I don’t want to scare you. It is not a work of science fiction either. This is the village of Boston and its green fenlands under ‘the English Heaven’ as described by Peter Hitchens of Daily Mail on 28 June 2013.

Many days have passed since Peter has published his post and he’s written many before and since. He won’t be intimidated by the ‘political correctness’. He goes straight to the point by showing us that whilst immigration had largely been tolerated for many decades – from the moment the migrants started settling in ‘little English Heavens’ – all jokes went out of the window.

But the biggest revelation came in his defence that ‘race’ clearly wasn’t a problem only that “their faces looked Slavic and their culture, language, customs, attitudes and sense of humour were different”- to the point that he felt helpless (“what if they did not understand the word Help if I was drowning”).

Peter knows what he is talking about – he had spent some years working in Moscow and could promptly distinguish the Cyrillic sings on the shops (or so he says) from the Latin alphabet even though he probably could not read it.

A few hypothetical questions left though (for the purposes of the cultural competence training):

  • How many people has he passed that morning and how did he know they all spoke Russian. To a monolingual ear most Slavic languages tend to merge into one.
  • Russian citizens are not coming an masse as EU migrants – am I missing something?
  • Finally – what joke did he tell and to whom to conclude that sense of humour might pose a future integration challenge?

The full article below. Brexit or Noexit – will Britain finally accept that debate on migrants is also a debate on race and economics?

Since this article was published the Balkanist has published an open letter to Washington Post in which the issue of describing ‘Eastern Europe’ and ‘Eastern Europeans’ as a homogenised block with inferior culture. This was in reference to ‘culture of cheating’ at Eastern European educational institutions. See the link here:

An Open Letter to the Editors of the Monkey Cage Blog of the Washington Post Online Edition

Read more: