Snezhana has experienced emigration twice. The first time she left Belarus to study in the Czech Republic a few years ago. Now Snezhana lives in London.
Snezhana, 30 years old
I left in 2015, after two years of working as a teacher at school. on assignment. I was so fed up with it all that I wanted to escape from Belarus at the first opportunity.
We had a Belarusian-language gymnasium, the children were good, I liked them. But I was embarrassed by the attitude of the principal and administration to the teachers. Naturally, there was an information hour where they brainwashed us with all sorts of propaganda. They also forced all teachers to join BRSM, to go to parades and hockey games. Once at a hockey game they closed us down and didn’t let us out, I got cold and sick.
All the documents were signed without your knowledge. They gave me a ticket without a photo because I hadn’t turned it in. They said: “Here, now you are in BRSM”. This epic lasted for a long time, I did not agree – I was pressed, brought to tears, pressured, because they themselves decided how it would be better. I did not like it, I am a free-spirited man.
Working in a public school for 200 dollars a month was a nightmare and I was ready to take any opportunity to leave. I got a scholarship to study and went on a program for developing countries in the Czech Republic.
I felt very lonely there, even though there were people I studied with, but we didn’t develop a friendly relationship.
It’s hard to describe, I seemed to like everything, but it was also sad and depressing. It was the first time I was in another country by myself without knowing the language. Despite the fact that I was already an adult (I was 23 years old), it was quite hard for me to deal with all kinds of documents, hospitals, bureaucracy and a number of issues that a person in another country has to deal with. It was a strong challenge for me.
But at the same time I liked the Czech Republic very much and still do. I was very interested in studying at the preparatory courses, I just adored studying. We had a great teacher, we had a great group. Relationships were good, but I had no close people there.
After 2 years I decided to move to another country – Great Britain. The last straw was that I couldn’t keep up with my studies. I was finishing the fifth year of the foreign language course in Minsk and studying abroad at the same time. Besides, in the Czech Republic I chose another specialty – mathematics. It was absolutely wrong choice.
I remember I had a real nervous breakdown: I came from Minsk from a session and I started a session in the Czech Republic. I realized that I couldn’t be like that for another three years – I couldn’t learn something I didn’t like. I cried in class, my math notebook was soaked with tears. I was so horrified to realize that this was not going to end right now, but would last at least three years.
Eventually decided to drop out. I got married and moved to London. By the time I left the Czech Republic, we had already been together with my future husband for four years. But we met at a distance, he lived in England, and he was also from Minsk.
This time it was easier, of course, because I came to conquer England not alone, but came to my husband. The first time we rented a room in a multi-room apartment with other people. Then we looked for a place to live together. Since he had lived in London for a long time, it was easier for us than for me alone in the Czech Republic. He already knew the districts: which ones were cheaper, which ones were more dangerous, which ones were trendier, where transportation was more convenient.
In England I lived at my husband’s expense for a while. But then I started looking for work too.
There was a hard period of life, it was connected with two things. The first was that I had no friends, for the first two years in general, I could not make friends with anyone at work. I had buddies, but I couldn’t call them friends. It was unrealistically difficult for me. Not that I’m an extrovert and a party person, but I can’t live without friends. In 2020, they began to appear, directly falling on me like avalanche. It can be connected with the protests in 2020 in London in support of Belarus. We found a lot of new acquaintances there. Then there were actions in solidarity with Ukraine, and we met even more people.
We had a multinational company – Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, even Latvians and Estonians. But I don’t have much contact with the British.
The second reason why it was difficult was that I had a job in the service industry and I was morally destroyed by “service”. My first job was at a take-away sushi bar. I worked the cash register there, did prep work in the kitchen, cleaned the floors, restrooms, and kitchen. I quit because of the manager, she openly abused me.
Then I worked in a coffee shop where I was also not accepted and ignored, although we had a very small team of four people. Two people just didn’t say hello to me. I had to constantly portray an incredibly happy attitude toward the customers, know them by name, and I had a hard time doing that because of the team spirit. I cried in the closet, but at the same time pretended that i was happy to all the visitors, it was emotionally costly. I love coffee though, I was interested in working with it, learning about it was cool, but on the other hand the interpersonal relationships were… f*cked. The third place I worked was in the service industry at a mid-range clothing store. There were rich customers there and you almost had to bow to them. You had to say, “Yes madam.” I felt like a servant. I got sick of it and I left. Those were my first two years in London, without friends and in this service industry, it was just hell. Then I started doing what I like, found friends and everything became good.
Now I do food photography and video, I’m an individual entrepreneur. I shoot content for different brands: recipe videos, food photography. And I love my job.
We went to Belarus until 2020. We only came for New Year’s vacation and spent time with friends and parents. Naturally, we knew how things really were in the country. But until 2020, it was like going to your grandmother’s house in the village – you are fed, you rest, sunbathe, walk… It was like in childhood. Then everything changed. I had an experience of working in a state institution, I realized how the state apparatus works – a rigid propaganda, an apparatus where you have no voice, no choice, it was never a secret to me what Belarus is really like. But my husband never worked in Belarus and I don’t think he fully understood the rigors of it, like many people before 2020.
I have a complicated relationship with Minsk. Minsk has never been my happy place for me. I always felt bad there, always wanted to leave there. When I came on vacation from my studies, I didn’t want to be there. At that moment I didn’t have a place where I felt good. And in the Czech Republic I felt bad, and in Minsk I thought everything was creepy and unsafe.
Now my idea of Minsk… it’s creepy to me too, but naturally I miss my little sentimental things. Like the grocery store by the house, the post office, the library. I mean, those childhood moments are safe islands. Very sentimental utopian images that are in my memory. I remember the dandelions blooming in May. You go home and the May sunshine is intoxicating, and these dandelions are glowing. It’s more of a feeling than a reality. But, in fact, last time we were in Minsk, the food I missed turned out to be the same feeling, a memory, when I tasted it – it was not delicious. I was very disappointed. And I think it’s like that with everything else in Minsk.
I like London. It’s versatile and it’s very beautiful. The district where we live is very colorful. Every twenty meters you can see an old Victorian building, and next to it there will be some squat, a durian, plantain and yam store, a kebab store, a hipster coffee shop. In our district next to a beautiful old church, where the whole wall is covered in ivy, there was a squat where anarchists lived for a year, they were evicted and sold the premises for expensive luxury flats, it’s very funny. There is a hot market, like Zhdanovichi, where they sell underwear on mannequins, where fake Louis Vuitton bags are on cardboard. If you go further into the center, there are also beautiful buildings, skyscrapers next to them, and it’s all so eclectic, but it’s in such harmony. Every time I see it and every time it excites me.
There are so many different nationalities and cultures in London. That’s pretty cool for an expatriate. No one will look at you in any way, or that you’ve come to take away your job, like, you weren’t invited, but you’ve come here. Because everyone here is like that.
I would advise people who are going through difficulties in emigration to find their own community.
Or create one themselves. It is very difficult to be alone and fight against all the people in the world when you realize that nobody needs you, and you are a stranger. The key is to find your own people who feel the same way. You can complain among yourselves about your bitter fate, but you can still hang out together, feel a piece of home. You’ll have something in common, some cultural background.
We hardly ever socialize with Brits, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You do what you like. But if you get into the local movement, that’s great too.
The main thing is not to be alone, don’t be afraid to make friends, get acquainted on the street. If you met someone, it doesn’t mean that you are obliged to communicate with this person. You just don’t have to be closed off from it. Don’t sit alone at home, it won’t lead to anything good – I know from my experience.