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UK offers comfort, security without requiring substantial wealth -Nigerian Economist Stella Ohia-Mbah on life as migrant

Stella Ohia-Mbah arrived the United Kingdom in 2022, in full gear. With a Masters degree in Economics, a letter of employment from one of the world’s largest professional services firm and a Tier 2 skilled worker visa, her status was the dream of every immigrant.

Prior to her arrival in the UK, Stella [or Ella, as her friends call her], was a Financial Risk Management and Compliance Consultant in Nigeria. Her motivation to migrate was clear: demand and opportunity in her field presented a chance to advance her career in post-COVID Europe.

“I noticed that post-COVID, there was a demand for professionals with my skillset across Europe and it was an opportunity to take my career further, so I took it.”

But even with her dream status, immigration is a life-altering decision that always leads individuals to new experiences and challenges. And Ella had her own fair share of both.
Her immigration process had hitches from the first blast of the whistle.

“I struggled to access forex to pay my visa fee and related charges, which meant I was forced to buy at black market rates. At the time, the exchange rate was very volatile, which made financial planning also very difficult. My visa processing also took longer than expected, so I couldn’t meet up with my work start date and had to get it extended for a few weeks,” Ella says.

In the early days of her arrival, Ella experienced apprehension, as she and her husband had no family or support system in the UK. They initially lived in a hotel for two months, which came with a hefty cost.

My palate was’nt ready for the bland English meals and endless supply of burgers and wraps

Ella settled fairly quickly into her work. She has worked for about a year now as a Senior Associate in Risk Management Consulting and her professional adjustment was relatively smooth, given the similarity to her work in Nigeria.

And she has technology to thank. She finds balance between work and home by adopting a hybrid work arrangement, going to the office twice a week, and reserving weekends for household responsibilities.

However, for cultural adaptation, the story is different. Her first major challenge was the British cuisine.

“I struggled with the food,” Ella laughed. “My palate was not ready for the bland English meals and endless supply of burgers and wraps. I quickly found an African restaurant.”
But the African restaurant was over two kilometers away from her hotel. “Still, I made the daily trip. I couldn’t wait to find my own apartment so I could prepare whatever I wanted.”

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Ella also had to cope with the weather challenge — the unfailing scourge of new immigrants. She arrived England in early autumn when the weather was starting to get chilly.

not having to worry about availability of basic amenities frees up your mind to focus on important matters

“Even though I thought I had brought the appropriate clothes, nothing really prepared me for just how cold it could really get. The jumpers and jackets I brought weren’t thick enough, so I quickly discarded those and got more appropriate ones.”

The weather may have been harsh, but there were many things Ella didn’t have to worry about. “Things like electricity, water, Internet, and transportation, which used to be major problems in Nigeria are readily and steadily available.

“I have not had to worry about any of these things for a long time. This frees up your mind to focus on important problems,” she enthused.

One remarkable aspect of Ella’s new life in the UK is the comfort and security it offers without requiring substantial wealth. This contrasts sharply with Nigeria, where you have to be rich to enjoy those basic things which had long been taken for granted in the UK.

Ella admits that there are many opportunities in the UK in general, but warns against heavy reliance on academic certificates. So, what does she advise?

“For immigrants, the options are limited. Your certificates aren’t worth a lot here, so start investing in experiences you can sell,” she warns.

Nigerians are resilient and hard working, but with all their contributions to the British economy, they aren’t being judged fairly

Like most African immigrants, Ella struggled with the “impersonal” and “detached” nature of the British society. She felt particularly challenged in the early days when she lacked a social network, leaving her and her husband feeling isolated. But, like most immigrants, she sought her brethren.

One moment that filled her with joy and pride was attending a friend’s child dedication ceremony where the Nigerian community came together to show support.

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Ella has continued to stay connected to her roots in many ways. “I always shop for local groceries from Nigerian stores. It is also a very good way to meet other Nigerians and Africans, generally. I also I joined a Black network at work.”

Ella is proudly Nigerian and does not miss opportunities to share her unique perspectives as one.

“My workplace has several diversity and inclusion moments where people are welcome to share unique perspectives and cultural practices. I have used such platforms to share information about myself and Nigerian background with others.”

In spite of negative stereotypes, Ella believes Nigerians are making a lot of positive impact in the UK. “Nigerian students have a track record of graduating top in their programs and in the professional workspace, we have Nigerians leading change across various sectors. Nigerians are resilient and known as hard workers (excessively so, in my opinion!)” Ella declares.

With all their contributions to the British economy, Ella does not believe Nigerians are judged fairly. “From economic perspectives, Nigerians contribute highly to the UK economy as many Nigerian homes have both parents working full time and paying taxes here” Ella argues.

So, what are her hopes and dreams for the future of Nigerian women in the UK? “I hope that as we continue to grow, our voices get louder, we get seats at the table where important decisions are made and we transform our influence into positive value for Nigeria,” Ella says.

Claire Ezeokeke
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