Living on the eastern side of Brexit: Bulgarians fight back

“Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May famously said regarding the UK’s path to a European exit. That is all good. But what does Brexit mean for those, who will have to live all around it? Is there any hope for hospitality or expectation of hostility for nations such as Bulgarians, which come to the UK in search of a better life?

What does Brexit mean for us- the poor Eastern European students in jeopardy?

The increasing dissatisfaction among Britons regarding the number of immigrants from the eastern parts of the continent has been causing distinct unease about the sight of a Bulgarian passport. It seems to signify things. And not particularly good ones. It immediately sets us apart. But before you rush into judgements, systematically prescribed by most, if not all, British mainstream media, give us a chance to explain ourselves.

Yes, we want to come to your country. But for very different reasons.

Although it is said that the ‘leave’ campaign is yet to take its share of Britain’s cultural diversity and workforce in small and steady spoonfuls, the first effects are already on the radar.

The number of EU-born graduates has decreased by 50,000 in the last three months of 2016, according to the Resolution Foundation think tank. These numbers seem to reflect what Brexit has the potential to do.

Even more so, what it could have already done to the mindset of the British people. Along with falling numbers of students there is an increase in the uncomfortable issue of immigration and its impact. And yet few seem to care about what it feels like to be a resident and a guest at the same time. That is a deeply subjective one.

“Are you moving from a place where you were accepted to a place where you will be accepted?  Or are you moving from a place where you are not as accepted,” explains clinical psychologist, journalist and media expert, Dr. Vinita Mehta.

“If the dominant culture is not very welcoming of immigrants and the myriad of ways they can contribute to the larger society, then immigration and cultural change can give rise to feelings of alienation.”

The cultural diversity of the country, its ‘stock’ of fresh talent and a notable decline in the financial income coming from universities and research are just some of the ‘victims’ of the UK’s self-directed alienation.


With its ‘exit’ from the EU, the UK might end up spending way more than it settled to save.                      Image: Pixabay

But Bulgarians are not that new to the British cultural landscape, although as a distinct ethnic group in the country we are quite young. The first big waves of emigration occurred in the 1990s and 2000s, when the Bulgarian community really started to take shape.

When the restriction on freedom of movement and work of Bulgarian citizens placed by the British government expired in 2014, it really took off.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 69,000 Bulgarian-born immigrants resided in the UK in 2015. I wonder how many would be inclined to stay in after Brexit comes into power?

Already, there has already been a seven per cent decline in the number of EU students applying to UK universities after Brexit, according to a UCAS report. This trend is expected only to progress in the future.

Here is a silver lining. Bulgarian students still make their way to the UK in even portions. In the period between 2014 and 2016, the number of those making that journey has not changed significantly.


You see, we do not get scared away easily. There is surprisingly little that can come in the way of our ambition. For some reason, for quite a long time now, that ambition has led us primarily to British shores. As soon as we reach solid ground, we turn that ambition into motivation.

In Bulgaria, the UK has a certain reputation. Among the young and adventurous, it is regarded as a safe harbour, a ‘heaven,’ a utopian idyll of limitless opportunities and limited restrictions. This is where you go to build a life and earn a degree along the way.

It is neither an escape route nor an easy way out of the problems of the home country. Well, at least not in all respects.

“When we move away, we have a “frame of reference” of where we came from.  Very often in the US at least, people come here to seek out a better way of life, and the frame of reference we have is usually that we’ve “risen above” our former circumstances.  That of course may be changing in these times,” says Dr. Mehta.

That is a quest-like initiative in its own right. It is a risk and a challenge. It is a seductive idea, resounding at the back of your head. It is being given a chance.

We make such good use of that chance because of who we are.


It is London above all others, which attracts students who wish to continue their studies in the UK.                        Image: Asya Gadzheva

Bulgarian students, and fair to say all Bulgarians, share the same untamed, notable and almost self-destructive stubbornness. Giving up is just not an option. It is really that simple. It is built into our DNA. We are fighters. We are not afraid to get our hands dirty in the process, although we might not always go about it with due confidence.

All of that is a result of our complicated past: victories, upsurges, repression and slavery. It is bound to leave a mark. It has forged our national identity.

Can you see it now? It is precisely because of who we are and what we are made of that Brexit will not be able to scare us or drive us away.


So, what does Brexit mean to Bulgarians? Is it a restriction to be imposed and conducted? Is it merely a country’s choice regarding its state and position within a huge international union? Or, is it simply another challenge on the bucket list, with which to ‘feed’ our motivation?

“I think it will be a change. Obviously. The UK is a smart country. I know there are other super developed counties in Europe, which are not in the European Union. Why wouldn’t they do the same?”
Boryana, 20, London

“Brexit is a decision the UK took. From what I see in the news, it appears that the nation could not take more from this partnership, from the other counties in the EU, so they decided to take on a different path. That is the only way I can think about it.”
Stoyan, 20, London

“The UK has never actually been part of the EU. They didn’t introduce the common currency, they are like from a different dimension. They simply will not accept any other point of view. A foreigner will never be a part of their community.”
Bilyana, 20, Sofia

What will the future hold for us in a post-Brexit UK? What will it be left of that utopian idyll, driving more and more students to Sofia International Airport each year?

“Right now there is a feeling in certain Western countries that “outsiders” are taking jobs and resources, when the facts just don’t stack up that way,” Dr. Mehta remarks. “It can make a world of difference to make new social connections in your new home, including with others who are also experiencing cultural adjustment.”

Yes, precisely: adjustment. We must all adjust as necessary to accommodate ourselves within any new environment.

The process starts as soon as you take the first steps when you leave the plane. You have now arrived in the country, which seeks to restrict your access. You have entered the realm of hope. That is what we all bring along. Hope for something better.

We will make something out of it. We always do.  That is just the way we are.

One comment

  • Nationalism that is borne of fear of the other is always distressing and never bodes well for the nation that practices it. It’s a terrible thing that only two generations after World War II, Europe (and the United States) have forgotten all the damage such Us:Them division causes.

    Liked by 1 person

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