We’re Latvian, we’re Deaf and we’re in the UK: The untold story of Deaf migration

Posted on June 4, 2013


A long way from home: Vladmirs Krumins and Rolands Barkans

Vladimirs Krumins and Rolands Barkans are both qualified builders from Latvia.

Like many people from Eastern Europe, they have made their way to Britain to find work and a better life; but Vladimirs and Rolands are Deaf and part of an intriguing wave of Deaf Latvians settling in the eastern English city of Peterborough.

Back in 2008, Latvia’s economy crashed by an order of magnitude far greater than the UK recession.

GDP plummeted by 18% while inflation rocketed and standards of living fell dramatically. Since then, the Latvian economy has recovered somewhat but for Vladimirs and Rolands, the UK is still the place to be.

“We came to Britain for work.” says Rolands.

“In Latvia there are no jobs. For Deaf people especially, it is extremely difficult to find work but when we came here to the UK it was easy to find a job in a factory.”

“Before the economic crisis, practically all Latvian Deaf people were involved in the building trade, especially for the inside jobs like painting or tiling. Then the crisis and recession came in 2008 and I was out of work for two years until I came here.”

A fenland fruit processing factory, about 20 miles east of Peterborough, employs almost half of the Peterborough Deaf Latvian population. That factory’s willingness to utilise a Deaf workforce is the driving force behind the influx of Deaf Latvians to the area.

“About 14 Deaf Latvian people work in that factory. It was easy to get work there but in all the other factories, it is difficult to get in.” said Vladimirs.

“The management there work well with Deaf people but I think that’s because the deaf Latvians have proven themselves to be good workers. In total, there are 30 Deaf Latvians in Peterborough and that’s not including partners or children. There must be about 70 Deaf Latvians in the UK so half of them are here.”

St Peter’s Church in Riga

Latvia is considerably smaller than the UK with a shrinking population of little more than two million. A former communist state, it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and is a place both Vladimirs and Rolands appear to miss very much. Stark economic comparisons between the UK and Latvia are the reason these two men live 1,000 miles from home and work unsociable hours in a factory.

Vladimirs explains: “In Latvia, on the minimum wage, you can earn the equivalent of about £300 a month. Here the minimum wage is £6.31 so we can earn £900 a month.”

“Even though it is a better standard of living in the UK, we really want to go home. My wife wants to go home too but we need to wait.”

“When you compare the two countries,” Rolands said, “food is pretty much the same price in Latvia as it is here.”

“Latvia used to be cheaper, but during the recession the Government put taxes on food and other things so now people can’t afford to go to restaurants. In the UK, electricity is very expensive but now that’s the same in Latvia too – prices are going up fast.”

“At least in the UK, I can pay the bills and buy clothes or save. In Latvia, there is just enough for food and rent .. nothing else.”

The Deaf community in Latvia is an echo of the UK Deaf community of the past; cochlear implants and digital hearing aids are not commonplace and there is a strong visible signing culture. The Latvian National Deaf Association has three thousand members and hold regular events across the country. According to Rolands and Vladimirs, who have both learned British Sign Language (BSL) to a good level, seeing people signing in the street is commonplace in Riga, the Latvian capital, and that’s something that they miss in the UK.

“There are not that many British people who sign. I want to meet more Deaf people in town but we don’t see people signing in the street.” says Rolands.

“Some people are welcoming but the problem is the sign language. I would like British people to use international sign as that’s easier to understand. More or less all Latvians know International Sign – we had to learn it growing up.”

“Latvia is better for Deaf people. We have a richer cultural life with songs in sign, theatre and the way we do our new years’ parties. We get together regularly and have big summer solstice celebrations where there are Deaf people in huge numbers. Deaf sports are more numerous too; we played basketball, volleyball, football, pool, billiards and bowling. There aren’t many sports to play here with Deaf people.”

Vladimirs said: “I have been on Deaf websites and spoken to people from all over the world, including the US, in International Sign but I have never seen English people on there. Irish, yes, but never the English.”

“I have been on Deaf camps all over Europe and all the kids use International Sign Language. British Sign Language is all you use here but people all across the world are using international sign too.”

St Peter’s Cathedral in Peterborough

Even though they are 1,000 miles away, Latvia will always be considered home for these men. They both hope to return to forge careers in the building trade and live among the Latvian Deaf community. A community that they miss very much and, maybe as a result of living in the UK, fear won’t be around forever.

“I’m worried that the Deaf community will vanish.” says Vladimirs.

“Deaf people have their own language and culture and I like it; but I’m worried that it won’t be here for much longer and there won’t be Deaf people around anymore. I hope that doesn’t come true.”

Rolands says: “I want a different job really but time will tell. It is better to stay here for a while but eventually I want to work in my profession.

“I don’t know what’s in my future – when I think about looking ahead, it’s like there is a curtain hanging there and I can’t see what’s on the other side.”

By Andy Palmer, The Limping Chicken’s Editor-at-Large. Thanks to Agnese Kamare for interpreting and the home-made apple pie.

Andy volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events as well as working for a hearing loss charity. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP (all views expressed are his own).

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Posted in: Andy Palmer