'The town is more foreign-friendly now' - meet the Lithuanians who have made King's Lynn their home
PUBLISHED: 10:44 12 November 2019 | UPDATED: 15:51 12 November 2019
Sigita Photography/Dovydas Paulionis/Jurgita Barzinskiene
As a nine-year-old boy, Dovydas Paulionis was thrown into a new culture unlike anything he had known in Lithuania.
His mother had migrated to the UK in 1998 and he joined her a year later.
But as Lithuania was not part of the European Union at that time - joining in 2004 - Mr Paulionis, now 29, said his family had to jump through a lot of hoops.
"I still remember how emotional the trip was," he said. "My grandmother and I were stopped by immigration and were held at passport control while they got my mum to confirm that we were travelling to stay with her.
"The worst part was that I could see my mum on the other side and she was tearing up as I'm standing on the other side and there was nothing that either of us could do."
He said immigration checks were more frequent and at times gave rise to discrimination.
Mr Paulionis said: "The only time I ever actually felt discriminated against was when police surrounded our house at 7am, woke everyone up and started checking my family's paperwork.
"The worst part was that my grandmother, who was visiting us on a holiday visa, got detained and taken away like a criminal - she was released around three hours later."
With very few Lithuanians and Eastern Europeans in the community at the time, Mr Paulionis said he was always in the company of English-speaking friends which made it easier to integrate into the British way of life.
Now, population figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for 2018 show an estimated 8,000 Lithuanian people live in the county, of which 3,000 live in west Norfolk.
"King's Lynn was a very different place, I think people used to look at us like we were vodka-drinking, benefit fraudsters," he said. "But we were here just to create a better life for ourselves.
"I think my generation looks at the EU and immigration now as a positive thing."
While things have improved with time, Mr Paulionis feels his community has been "let down by the Brexit shenanigans".
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He said: "Eastern Europeans are leaving after years and years of trying to build a future here, for the simple fact that they feel like they aren't welcome here anymore."
That was the case for 37-year-old Jurgita Barzinskiene, who left King's Lynn after 15 years.
She moved to the UK in 2004 with her then boyfriend to build a new life in the west Norfolk town.
She said: "My life was 100pc different - no friends, no family, different people, different laws, different rules, everything was new and scary."
She said she faced discrimination from the very beginning, but added: "I have some nice moments as well, I met a lot of new people and I've got some friends."
But it was not enough to keep her in the country, stating she made the difficult decision to move back to Lithuania to be with her family.
Meanwhile, for father-of-two Gintaras Simanskis, 37, life in King's Lynn has been mostly positive for him and his family.
"Fifteen years ago it was quite dangerous to go out socialising for non-local residents," he said. "But these days it is more foreign-friendly than it used to be."
The 2019 school census reveals around 12pc of schoolchildren in west Norfolk do not speak English as their first language and one in 10 children were classed as 'other white background'.
His children Enrika, 13, and Eidan, eight, were both born and brought up in King's Lynn, and Mr Simanskis works as an engineer and is chairman of the local Lithuanian Society.
Mr Simanskis said living standards were better in the UK compared to Lithuania, which was one of his main motivations for leaving the country.
"Lithuania was strangled in the Soviet Union occupation until 1990, and it took long years to get back on track and rise again as a free country," he said.
"My first impression of UK was very positive and the first difference I noticed was how much better the quality of life is here."
In response to discrimination, Mr Simanskis said he encouraged people to report incidents to police.
"Most of the migrants I meet here are hard-working and law-abiding citizens, he said. "Any discrimination against people like this in my opinion is unreasonable."