FEATURE: Staying home for Easter – how Eastern Europeans in Erdington celebrate Easter during the coronavirus crisis

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics courtesy of individuals featured

We were not guaranteed a future in this country,” Laszlo Molnars tells Erdington Local, via an international a phone call.

It has been several weeks since Laszlo left the UK, making the decision to take his family back to Hungary as countries across mainland Europe were taking themselves into lockdown – with Britain being one of the last on the list. “It was a big decision for us to leave the UK so soon…” sighs Lazlo, “but we are happy to be somewhere we feel safe.”

Erdington is home to many Eastern Europeans, a vibrant Diaspora who have built families, businesses, and lives in the North East Birmingham constituency. Predominately Christian by faith, Easter would normally see with many returning to their countries of origin – celebrating the festive period with their wider families and communities.

But due to the coronavirus global pandemic, and the restrictions of travel – both domestic and international – that have been enforced across the world, this Spring’s festive repatriation has raised difficult questions for many families. Laszlo and his family are now back in Hungary, but what about those who stayed in the UK?

I planned to go to Poland for Easter with my daughter,” explains Anna Fijałkowska, 34, who was unable to see her family or do the things she would normally do at Easter, “I would go to Poland and spend Easter with my family, mother, sister and grandmother.” Like many of the over 800,00 Polish people living in the UK, Anna desired to return – preferring the quicker response by the Polish government to the original ‘herd immunity’ promulgated by the UK administration.

But it is still Easter. And Wielki Post (Holy Week) is still a big deal, especially in a predominantly Catholic country like Poland. “I could not go to church for Palm Sunday,” continues Anna, “I could not go to get my basket blessed.” With all the religious rituals on hold in the UK, this time of year would seem very alien for people like Anna.

But despite all these complications Anna remains positive, finding delight at spending so much quality time with her daughter – even in the shadow of something so nasty: “I think the time of this virus is a very special time for us which shows us that we should focus more on building family relationships. I still prepared all the foods that I would at Easter.” Biała kiełbasa [smoked meats], Mazurek [Easter cakes] and of course, pisanki [Easter eggs] all take centre stage in Polish households, although this year without being taken to church for a blessing.

With an established Polish community in Erdington and across Birmingham, St Michael’s Church and the Polish Millennium Centre serving as focal points, for some Eastern Europeans their whole life is here already. Atanas Slavchev or ‘Nasko’, 34, moved to Erdington from Bulgaria six years ago.

Happy Easter!” he exclaims over the phone. Most Bulgarians would celebrate Easter on 19th April – like with most other Orthodox countries, Eastern European Christianity follows the Julian calendar, meaning common religious festivals can be held at different times in different countries.

Every day is Easter,” explains Nasko, “as Christ is risen. But we celebrate it especially today, like the Orthodox.” Nasko’s family are not orthodox, but rather part of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) church in Erdington – home to a lively evangelical band, called El Shaddai. Somewhat unlike the Orthodox style a capella chants, it’s not your typical Bulgarian affair; this time of year would still have been a time of jubilation.

Similar themes of religious celebration, gathering of families and unique cuisine, rise from Nasko’s conversation: Kozunak [Easter bread], Lamb dishes [reflecting the ‘lamb of God’], and, eggs [which they paint] define the taste and style of Easter for Bulgarians.

But there is disappointment, “our kids were rehearsing hard for the Easter play, but they can’t do that now.” Another cancelled event for Nasko’s family.

He and his wife run Sofia, a Bulgarian food and convenience store on Tyburn Road. Their wider family in Erdington numbers around 70 – uncles, aunties and cousins included – and they’ve kept Sofia open, catering to the Bu;garian community but also for non-Bulgarians who have caught on that these shops still have pasta and flour during the coronavirus crisis – only the writing is in another language.

It’s still important to Nasko and his family to visit their home country, but he predicts they won’t get time this year due to complications from the global pandemic, “we wanted to go to Bulgaria but we may end up just going to Cornwall for our holiday.”

Ramona Petrescu, 26, is not with any family this Easter. She moved to the UK about five years ago to improve her English and meet new people – working in factory jobs, alongside some translation work, and selling her wares as an artist and crafter.

Lamb dishes, Pască [Romanian Easter bread] and ‘ouă incondeiate’ [decorated eggs] also define this time for Romanians, which, like Bulgaria, is a mostly orthodox country. But it has been hard for Ramona to get into the Easter spirit at all – even whist not being religious, this time is still a marked celebration in her year.

The usual excitement for the day has definitely gone”, explains Ramona, “I am definitely less upbeat and more into introspection and peace of heart and mind, while I find myself far away from what I ‘ve known to be comfortable in Romania”. Ramona wanted to paint eggs but didn’t finds she have the will or the time this year.

Although on Easter Sunday, Ramona treated herself to ‘ouă umplute’ (devilled eggs) which she assures was a “great Romanian invention.”

With thanks to Magdalena and Oksana from the Polish Expats Association for assistance with research. For more on the Polish Expats Association, visit www.facebook.com/polish.expats

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FEATURE: Saturday night cabin fever – how Erdington musicians are coping in the coronavirus lockdown

Words by Jobe Baker Sullivan / Pics courtesy of individual musicians featured

Lampstands, sofas and surprise appearances from family pets – the new performance stages for musicians as they stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Requesting songs from Alexa or re-runs of Glastonbury just aren’t the same as the live-spirit that comes from a craftsman with their tool – a musician and their instrument.

Musicians want to keep the ‘food of love’ in constant supply, and live-streaming is helping feed the community.

Erdington Local caught up with three Erdington based musicians to see how their lives have changed since lockdown.

When she’s not in high profile business meetings or adventuring around Asia, Jo Baldwin (37) is usually gigging 4 times a week with her band The Jo Baldwin Project (JPB).  From pubs, bars and functions of all kinds, Jo’s weekends are often enthralling and exhausting. The JBP tend to perform rock and pop covers from the 1980s-present, and Jo singing for 3 hours with only short breaks.  

“Music has done wonders for my mental health” she says, her beaming, proud smile almost audible over the phone. Jo openly reminds audiences that she went through a dark time and that music was her constant companion.

Now she’s at home, she has found time for her three true loves: her black Labrador, Josie, her one-eyed Turkish cat, Emre, and her music. Her pets are enjoying the attention, and she’s always assured an attentive audience of two whilst in lockdown. Jo has taken to live-streaming regularly, and self-isolation has meant she has found time to work on her own original songs – and the band are finding it good fun working remotely.

But this is not enough to keep Jo occupied. She’s working from home as the key account manager for a pharmaceutical company and she’s gone the extra mile with her company’s “voluntary redeployment position” – she delivers medicine to patients, and she finds it a humbling experience. “Patients are telling me how happy they are. One was over the moon he didn’t have to catch two buses to the clinic.”

The next few weeks of self-isolation for Jo look positive. Sunshine and dog-walks, time for beloved music and to work on her album. She’s also now“into Tik Tok.”

For some, music is their full-time job. In the Chancellor’s speech on the 26th March, Rishi Sunak said:

I know that many self-employed people are deeply anxious about the support available for them. Musicians and sound engineers; plumbers and … through no fault of their own, risk losing their livelihoods.”

Perhaps this will have assuaged musician’s fears?

One such full-time muso is Reuben Reynolds (29), who before the lockdown, was in demand by schools and bands around the country. He spent his professional time teaching in Leicester and Brixton.

Like Jo, his weekends were dominated by gigs – he tends to back R&B artists, pop artists, gospel bands, and it’s not uncommon for him to be performing for 100s if not 1000s of people at concert venues.

So, what has Reuben been up to?

“I’ve been sleeping a lot more,” he proudly states over the phone. The odd hours musicians have to work – not just the gigs and the teaching, but rehearsals and preparing material, can often dominate their lives.

“I’ve found more time for study and rehearsal, as well as working on some recordings.”

Rueben has always used social media to share his beautiful music and advertise his incredible and varied guitar abilities, and he thinks “it’s important to share and connect” with people.

He seems pretty relaxed about his earnings, too: “I’ve been enjoying the lockdown!” he laughs, “initially, we’re just looking at the next few months wondering where the income is going to come from. But the Government seem to have plans in place.”

He explains that one of his schools are preparing for lessons on Zoom so they can continue to teach students following the Easter break, so he hasn’t escaped work completely.

It’s difficult to predict when this lockdown will end, but Reuben, like many musicians, would be devastated if the country is still in lockdown in August – prime festival season.

It’s saddening to hear of all the postponed-weddings and funerals with so few people attending, wakes are not an option. That also means putting the kibosh on musicians like Edwin Podolski (24) from Kraków, who now lives in Erdington.

He’s a violinist/violist who graduated from the Birmingham Conservatoire. He was in huge demand in orchestras, quartets and string-related music groups – and all bookings for his regular groups such as MAKK and Bollywood Strings have been cancelled or postponed. He was especially looking forward to a big concert in London this April, where he was top of the bill.

The lockdown has allowed Edwin to develop his creative side, arranging English folk tunes for string duo.

He’s been trying to teach his private students over Zoom, but he’s not a fan, “it’s so frustrating. The delay, the bad sound”. No replacement for real life!

Edwin’s been rather excited to find more time for exercise. Before lockdown, Edwin would attend a Muay Thai boxing group, although it’s difficult to train without a partner.

There are so many other people who work in the arts and rely on face-to-face business, as well as people who consume it and make these interactions part of their routine. Erdington MP, Jack Dromey has said: “after food and medicine, isolation will be the big issue – and I want the Arts to play a big role in it.”

All these musicians and art-types may yet have a role to play in the weeks to come. Music plays such an important role in human culture, and these Erdington musicians won’t let a pandemic stop them from creating art.

To find out more about the artists featured in this article, click here for more on The Jo Baldwin Projectclick here for more on Reuben Reynolds, and click here for more on Edwin Podolski.

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FEATURE: Rugby dad tackles COVID-19 lockdown – Erdington Rugby Club player and patron, David Owen, is ready to ‘ruck’ n roll with community response to coronavirus

Words by Keat Moore / Pics courtesy of David Owen

Erdington local, David Owen, has been a star player when it comes to community response to the COVID-19 lockdown – which has left many residents housebound and anxious about how they’re going to access food and supplies.

David (37), who works as a Data Analyst for National Express, leapt into action after seeing a post on Facebook calling for volunteers – as part of the ‘Erdington local community response to COVID19’ group set up by another Erdington resident, Jo Bull.

The Facebook group currently has over 600 members and has become a de facto hub for those seeking or offering support to the Erdington community during the coronavirus crisis. And thanks to the efforts of David and Jo, as well as their team of nearly 60 active volunteers, they’ve already helped over 200 people.

Erdington Local contacted David to find out more about the man nicknamed ‘Mr. Erdington’, and how he’s getting on.

“I feel like a kid with his finger in the dam, to be honest,” admits David, “but we’re doing well, and our volunteers are doing an amazing job”. Given the uncertainty around how long the coronavirus lockdown could last, let alone the pandemic, it’s not surprising he feels apprehensive.

At the time of writing, the Erdington local community response to COVID19 Facebook group has 57 volunteers – all members of the community who just want to help. Each evening, David posts an update to the group and gives special thanks to his ‘Angels of the Day’; whether it’s collecting hundreds of sandwiches or delivering a single bottle of Calpol, these volunteers are going that extra mile to perform small miracles of community-spirit when people need each other the most.

David also has fronted £200 of his own money to ensure everyone, even those who can’t afford much, don’t go without. “I’m not too concerned about the money at the moment,” tells David, “we can sort that out after, but right now people need food and that’s more important” – although he wishes he had more money to cover all of the volunteer’s expenses, even though they haven’t asked for any compensation.

All of the volunteers pay for the groceries out of their own pockets and give the receipts to David so he can transfer the money back to their bank accounts, a system that also works as a deterrent for those who would try to take advantage.

“We’ve had a few chancers, but not many. And once they know I’ll be checking their details and that everything we do is cashless, they don’t respond, ” David takes safeguarding seriously after reports from other parts of the city that vulnerable people have been defrauded by those pretending to be volunteers. “I know a lot of people in the area already, and you get a feel for who the dodgy ones are. But honestly, we haven’t had to deal with anything like that,” and whilst he doesn’t have the means to perform DBS checks, David does the best he can to ensure the group’s volunteers are who they say they are by verifying their addresses and identities via the electoral roll.

David and his volunteers are even happy to make shopping trips multiple times a week for the same individual, if needed. “I do have to tell people that we’re not going to do a weekly shop,” explains David, “they have to limit it to three days’ worth of supplies, and not £90 weekly shops, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to carry on.”

The Active Wellbeing Society, who have been appointed by Birmingham City Council to help coordinate and distribute food supplies across the city, are also supporting David and his efforts – which he says has helped manage the increasing demand and need from the community: “TAWS have been brilliant, they have loads of food from across the city and they’ve got people prepping and packing hot meals and we deliver them.”

“I’ve always been rubbish at being idle,” David responds when asked what inspired him to get involved, “and I’m a big believer in community spirit, especially in Erdington.” He’s no stranger to rallying for a cause either, having campaigned and fundraised for the Erdington Rugby Club. It was brought back from extinction through David’s efforts and the generosity of the local community, going from strength to strength, even replacing the changing rooms with a donated double-decker bus (nicknamed Rugger) kitted out with showers.

But the biggest surprise for David has been discovering how many organisations work in Erdington to support the community, “I’ve never really been exposed to these kinds of organisations because I’m all about the rugby club, but it’s really reassuring to know that they’re out there trying to make a difference.”

He’s also been touched by how quickly he and the other volunteers have built relationships with the people they support, “it’s lovely, we’ll call ahead to let them know we’re on the way with their shopping so they can pick it up from the doorstep, and when we get there they’ll be in the window with a big grin, giving us all a wave.”

David’s also got big plans for when the lockdown is over, “I’m going to throw a big party for all of the volunteers and for everyone we’ve supported. All of us have made friends that we didn’t have before, and I want to celebrate that and the community-spirt that I always knew Erdington had. I don’t want us to go back to being strangers.”

To visit the Erdington local community response to COVID19 Facebook group, where you ask for help and support during the coronavirus crisis – or offer your services as a volunteer, visit www.facebook.com/groups/625073991557017

Alternatively, you can get in touch with Erdington Local via phone or email and we will forward on your details to David Owen and the the Erdington local community response to COVID-19 Facebook group.

For all our contact information, visit www.erdingtonlocal.com/contact-erdington-local/

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FEATURE: Witton Lodge Community Association reaches out to local residents – as part of the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce

Words & pics by Ed King / Video by Paul Withers – Erdington Local Broadcast Unit

A special Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce has been set up in response to the coronavirus crisis, with Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) reaching out to local residents with food parcels and support services – outreach activity mirrored by community hubs and support groups across the constituency.

Established as the pandemic reached more critical levels for the UK during March, the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce is a ‘collaborative approach and co-ordinated effort’ involving many of the constituency’s community groups and care providers – alongside Jack Dromey MP, Councillor Robert Alden, representatives from Birmingham City Council, and further political and community figures known in the area.

Speaking directly to Erdington Local about the coronavirus crisis, Jack Dromey MP says: “The COVID-19 crisis is the most serious moment in our country’s history since World War II. The sheer scale of what is happening – and its social and economic impact – is frightening. But at a moment of crisis, it is crucial that community and country stand together.

As the crisis deepened four weeks ago, we moved to establish the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce to bring together those who can make a difference – to sustain our community and our citizens through these dreadful times.”

Chaired by Afzal Hussain, Chief Officer at Witton Lodge Community Association – who have been working in Perry Common since 1994, the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce has already begun a series of outreach activities focused on delivering vital public support and tackling the immediate issues effecting people across the area.

Following a call to arms to local residents and businesses, Witton Lodge Community Association have been receiving donations of food and essential goods which they are redistributing directly to households in their local community – adhering to the safety guidelines issued by Public Health England.

With a growing number of volunteers – working as parcel packers, drivers, administrators, and phoning locals residents to check directly on their wellbeing – the team at WLCA are delivering over 60 care packages those most vulnerable on Tuesdays and Fridays, alongside a daily schedule of further deliveries to the wider community.

“The absolute priority has to be welfare and safety… so people having those essential supplies,” explains Afzal Hussain.

“We already have residents, families, and individuals that we know need this support, so we’ve started with those. We are now having referrals; people are calling us, councillors and social workers and others are referring people to us, so we’ve mobilised our staff and volunteers to go and make sure those deliveries happen. We’ve scheduled those in so there are regular delivery slots a couple of times a week to do that.”

Responding to a health crisis such as coronavirus, a virulent disease that’s effecting countries and citizens around the world, takes a level of community action beyond that of WLCA’s usual support programme. But many in Erdington have already risen to the challenge, as the impact from coronavirus continues to dominate headlines, hearts and minds across the globe.

“We’re trying to reach out to those who can’t access basic provisions,” tells Marie Benjamin – Volunteer Co-ordinator at WLCA. “It’s vital right now, without support there could be people out there suffering a lot.”

Other issues highlighted by local residents are employment, financial support and advice, as well as the health and wellbeing concerns from being in prolonged self-isolation.

To effectively tackle these growing problems, the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce has been building a database of organisations called the Erdington Assets Register – with companies from Bromford Fish Bar to Birmingham Mind offering their time and resources to help deliver these important support services.

“The response has been amazing,” explains Debbie Bates – Health and Wellbeing Transformation Lead at Witton Lodge Community Association. “It’s been a collaborative approach and co-ordinated effort across Erdington, working to ensure people in the community get the help the need at this critical time.”

But as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK continues to rise, alongside the death toll, there is still much more that needs to be done – by both Witton Lodge Community Association and the wider Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce.

Organisations are being encouraged to sign up to the Erdington Assets Register, strengthening the database of private and public sector groups that can provide support. Whilst individuals can make a significant difference by offering their time, energy, or donations of food and essential goods to the growing community outreach programme.

Volunteering is really important,” continues Afzal Hussain, “if there are supplies and food, we’ll happily take those. I think what I would say to groups and organisations who are there, who want to work together, is to come forward – we will add them to that emergency (Erdington) Asset Register.

We’re using that as the live platform; people can add their details, let everyone know what’s going on, what services they’re providing, and importantly they can collaborate with others in their neighbourhoods and communities.”

For anyone wanting to find out more about the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce, or to add their organisation to the Erdington Assets Register, please contact Witton Lodge Community Association on (0121) 382 1930 or email afzal.hussain@wittonlodge.org.uk

Organisations can also add their names directly onto the Erdington Assets Register, operated as a live platform and database, by clicking here.

People can also contact Witton Lodge Community Association though their website or social media, with full details found at www.wittonlodge.org.uk

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