© Ciara Leeming

The story of Ramona Constantin is one of adversity, personal dilemma and courage.

Her journey from an abandoned housewife in Romania, where she was known as Elvira, to an award winning member of the Manchester community, spawned the book “Elvira and Me”, a joint work by Ramona and Ciara Leeming, a Manchester journalist.

A print journalist with a natural talent for photography, Ciara has been taking a keen interest in her new Romanian Romani neighbours since 2007.

Finding permanent work for Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants is a tall order in the UK with strict employment laws limiting those from the EU’s newest states to self-employment.

Some have resorted to selling a regional version of a British magazine for the homeless, the “Big Issue in the North” for which Ciara frequently contributes.

Ciara explained that “The Roma became very visible, in the city centre yet no one really knew them.”

It was through the magazine that Ciara met Ramona and very quickly their friendship bloomed. After a couple of months, Ramona agreed to be the subject of Ciara’s documentary project.

After her husband left her and her daughter Latifa, Ramona was despondent. After some time, she moved to the UK with her new partner while Latifa stayed in Romania.

© Ciara Leeming

Ramona described the early days in Manchester as “a happy and sad time.” She expanded: “I was missing my old life, but I was also very happy to be in a new country, seeing things I’d only ever seen on TV.”

Ramona’s move strained relationships with her parents who would look after her daughter. Her traditional family felt uncomfortable with her emigration, and her career aspirations.

It was a fraught time as she outlined “I was 24 when I came here. I didn’t speak the language, I couldn’t read or write and I had never worked in my life. My family was upset with me. I was married with a man from a different community.”

Despite the family tension, she admitted to missing the closeness of traditional family life, something she found less common in her new surroundings.

Ramona explained: “In Romania we would eat together and spend a lot of time together. Here (in Manchester) I often notice that people don’t want to get too close.”

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Growing up she had no formal education, looking after her siblings instead while her parents went out to work. Despite this, Ramona learned English herself and within two years was working as an interpreter and classroom assistant.

She admitted: “It was confusing for me to work in a school when I had never been in school myself.”

The news of Ramona working in a school was met with indifference by her father.

Indeed, he was somewhat dubious as to his daughter’s qualifications as she herself explained: “My Dad said ‘How can she teach to read and write when she doesn’t know herself?’ I told him I can read and write now but he still doesn’t think I know enough.”

In 2011, Ramona was awarded with the inaugural Levenshulme Inspire award for her tireless work for the Romani community in the city. She was also presented with an award for courage at the Manchester Women’s Awards at Manchester Town Hall.

There is no question that Ramona has found Manchester to be a place she can call home and where, as she put it, her “dreams can come true” and she could live more freely.

Ramona said: “I wished all of my life to have freedom and to live independently – I was always wondering what was behind the wall. The first thing I saw when the wall fell down happened to be Manchester, it could have been anywhere.”

With a long history of immigration and numerous large minority communities living in the city, Manchester’s cosmopolitan make-up has helped Ramona to settle in.

She noted: “They don’t look at the way you dress, your culture or the color of your skin. They look at the way you act and behave as a person.”

Ramona insists that the onus lies with the Roma to improve their situation wherever they are, and that “change has to start with us.”

She continued: “We have to make ourselves more respectable. Where one person does something good, and 100 do bad, people won’t notice the good.”

When asked about what life would be like if she returned to her native Romania, Ramona foresees a simple life.

“If the family is traditional, there is no chance of a Romani woman building a career in Romania.”

“If I went back it would be essential for me, as a Romani woman, to have more kids. I thought I would have four or five kids. Then they would have their own kids and all my life would be about kids.”

This is the distinction made in the book’s title. Elvira is only one side of a double identity. The side where traditions reign, and where her role is homemaker, mother and wife.

“Elvira” she says “is still alive in the mornings from 7 to 9 and again in the evenings. When I am in the house I must be quiet and respectful. I have to keep the two parts (Ramona and Elvira) separate to continue what I am doing.”

Ramona meanwhile is the new side of her life, where she has prospered against difficulties and learned just how much she, as a young uneducated Romani woman, can actually achieve.

For Ramona, a return to her old life seems unthinkable.

She proudly said “I didn’t think there could be happiness for me. But I found courage to make myself happy.”

“I am proud to be in Manchester. It feels like I’ve been born here, I’ve grown here.”

Ramona also insisted that young Roma today should be careful with the educational opportunities they are given.

She demanded “Young Roma in school need to appreciate what they’ve got. They have the freedom to go to school, they don’t have to stay home and look after their brother.”

“My parents said you don’t need school to learn how to wash, clean the home and respect your husband.”

“My mother didn’t support me having a career. But I want my daughter to be a lawyer, to go to university, to be a singer, to be a dancer, a nurse. Whatever she wants, I will support.”

It has taken some time but Ramona’s daughter has moved to England to be with her mother.

 © Ciara Leeming

Her story has inspired a book that should be found in the libraries and on the shelves of schools everywhere. “Elvira and Me” is the perfect medium to introduce children and adults alike to a culture of which so many know and understand so little.

Moreover, it is a personal story which immediately grabs the reader’s attention. It is very difficult not to be drawn in and charmed by Ramona.

For Ramona herself, it will always carry an emotional value: “When I open the book I cry. Sometimes we don’t see what we’ve achieved because we don’t look back, we are always looking forward. I’m thinking now that the impossible is possible for myself.”

Collaborator Ciara noted a great amount of admiration for her friend, who had invited her into both sides of her life.

Ciara observed: “Ramona faces pressure from her family in Romania, her relatives in the UK and indeed the wider Romani community here. She is incredibly strong, I have a lot of respect for her.”

Ramona clearly has ambitions, not only for herself but her whole community. Ciara said: “She wants to inspire young Romani women in her community to think big and fulfill their potential.”

Still proud to be Roma, Ramona believes that tradition should not be a barrier to a career.

She concluded: “In Manchester there are Muslim women who cover their faces but they still work. People can keep their culture and achieve. I am a human being. I have a brain, two eyes, two feet, two hands just like everyone else. I don’t want to hide behind tradition, if you want it you can do it.”

The link to the online book is here http://issuu.com/ciaraleeming/docs/elvira_and_me

You can find out more about Ciara’s ongoing work with Ramona and other Romani migrants to the UK at www.theromaproject.com while more on Ciara herself can be found at her excellent website http://www.ciaraleeming.co.uk