When job prospects drive our young people abroad
The prospect of a regular pay-cheque is enough to encourage young Fermanagh folk to travel far-from-home, where they have to grapple with a very different way of life.
While Australia and New Zealand remain popular destinations, many emigrants are attracted to BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), whose economies are growing faster than the US and the EU, and can therefore provide stable career opportunities.
In the first of a new series on emigration, Kieran Haren recounts his experience of living and working in Moscow.
Following a number of years of temporary teaching contracts in Belfast and Fermanagh, Kieran Haren from Cooeen, Fivemiletown moved to Russia in August.
He and his fiancée Mairead Higgins from Downpatrick made the decision to move after partaking in interviews with Uteach; an organisation which offers relocation packages to newly qualified and experienced teachers.
"I was on a temporary contract here and Mairead was only working two days a week so the prospect of two full time jobs was the main consideration, " Kieran explains.
Following their interviews in Dublin, Kieran and Mairead were accepted into the British International School of Moscow, where the British curriculum is taught to pupils in five different school buildings. Kieran teaches 11-to-16 year olds the Key Stage 3 and GCSE curriculum, while Mairead teaches Year One i.e. five and six year olds.
Because they were employed through Uteach, their flights and visas were paid for.
"The first week was quite scary," Kieran admits, as the couple had to adapt to a new culture and language. However, once settled in the school, they met other teachers from Antrim, Omagh and Banbridge as well as the rest of the UK, Canada and Africa.
English speaking schools are "much sought after" in Russia, Kieran explains. "There's a real drive to give children an English education."
"The class sizes are small and the children are well-behaved and hard-working," he notes. They come from mixed socio-economic backgrounds, from the very rich (such as the children of diplomats who arrive in chauffeur driven cars), to those being sponsored by various international companies.
"Some kids are used to being moved around the world according to their parents' jobs and can adapt to new classrooms. I have one pupil who started this year and has to catch up on two years of GCSE work in one year. But that's the life they are used to," Kieran explains.
Ipads and iPhone 5s are commonplace and theft is not an issue, Kieran remarks. Russia has its own version of Facebook called VK, which his pupils use.
All religions and cultural backgrounds are catered for. "I am teaching children from 40 nationalities; Russian, Korean, German, French, you name it.
"There are a vast variety of religions: Russian Orthadox, Christain, Muslim and they get on fine," Kieran adds.
"At the end of the day they are all teenagers like those I have taught in Northern Ireland. They have to deal with similar teenage issues."
Kieran's pupils and the parents have high expectations. "I had to console one girl and her parents recently because I gave her a B."
Teachers are held in "very high esteem" and Russia has a National Teacher's Day, where gifts and flowers are given to the teacher by pupils, Kieran adds.
Outside of school, while Russia has been a capitalist country since 1991, remnants of its communist history remain. For example, while they have various UK, French and German shopping outlets, many shop fronts are not clearly visible from the street and shoppers can see where milk and meat used to be bought at separate counters.
"If you see a product you like, you buy lots of it there and then because it might not be back for weeks on end," Kieran explains.
The red-brick towers of the Kremlin (at the founding site of Moscow), churches and monuments to fallen heroes and battles, and remains of the Soviet state are scattered all around the city.
"We took a tour of a Russian bunker and it was interesting to see their take on the Cold War. They were just as scared of an American attack as the Americans were of a Russian attack. We usually only hear the story from the Western perspective," Kieran says.
Another interesting tradition is "people give flowers for all occasions." Kieran says: "You always see people walking around with bunches of flowers and at the metro stops, there are always flower stalls."
Also, the government controls the heating and while it is -15 degrees outside, it is +28 degrees inside and the only way to control it is to open a window. "It's not very efficient," Kieran notes.
Getting around the city can be challenging because "being first at the bus stop does not mean you'll be first on the bus, especially if there are older women there," Kieran laughs. Similarly, while eating out: "You order what you want but take what you get!"
While Russians are very "stern", they are fiercely loyal to friends and family and are "very friendly once you get to know them," Kieran has noticed.
The recession has not had the same effect on Russians as in the UK and Ireland.
Russia became the world's leading oil producer in 2011, surpassing Saudi Arabia. It is the second-largest producer of natural gas and holds the world's largest natural gas reserves. Steel and primary aluminum are also major exports. It was hit hard in 2009 as oil prices plummeted and the foreign credits that Russian banks and firms relied on dried up. However, high oil prices buoyed Russian growth in 2011.
"The recession is not evident in the city and people seem to be pretty well-off," Kieran notes. "There are some homeless people as with most big cities, but I expected many more."
Russia is renowned for its bureaucracy, unreliable courts and organised crime. Kieran has noticed that paperwork is very important in many day-to-day tasks and that visa controls are also very strict.
The couple are on double entry visas which means they must travel home on specific dates in order to be able to return to the country. The Russian National Tourism website warns: "Russian visa is an exit permit just like it's an entry permit: if you lose it or stay over your designated departure date, leaving the country could be more troublesome than entering it."
Kieran adds: "You must carry your passport at all times as your visa could be checked anywhere."
Easy Jet plans to fly to Mosocw soon and this pleases Kieran as he realises he can get to and from the country with relative ease, compared to those who live further-afield.
Overall, "it's been a great experience, particularly teaching those for whom English is not their first language."
The couple are coming home to get married in July 2013 and will then return to Moscow for at least one year. Meanwhile, they are enjoying the opportunity to save money while bolstering their CVs.
This article appeared in Impartial Reporter 03 Jan 13