Yana Nesterenko was the head of marketing communications for a large Ukrainian corporation. After the full-scale Russian invasion, she fled the country to save her children. The family lived in Slovakia for about a week and then decided to move westward. They ended up in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. Living on welfare in a foreign country wasn’t appealing to the Ukrainian woman, so she was determined to get a job. The end result was more than just a job that fit her qualifications; she is now a communications manager in the European Parliament. Her job is to develop the communication strategy, branding, design, and special projects. Yana shared her employment experience with and described her way to overcome the strict limits set for foreigners in a foreign country.
Brussels for Ukrainians: finding accommodation
It’s very hard for Ukrainians to find a place to rent in Brussels, even if they have money in their account in Ukraine. Landlords want to see a Belgian employment contract and know your salary for the last three months.
There’s a popular belief among the Belgians that the war will end in a month or so and Ukrainian refugees will return home. As landlords seek long-term tenants, they aren’t willing to lease to Ukrainians.
The search for housing takes two to three months on average. Many Ukrainians don’t succeed and are forced to go back to Ukraine.
Doing the paperwork for Ukrainians in Belgium
Residence permits are granted as part of temporary protection, a program launched specifically for Ukrainians. Refugees from other countries go through a full-fledged, long, and complicated asylum procedure when they’re not allowed to work, have to learn the language, etc. Meanwhile, Ukrainians do their paperwork in one to three months on average, after which they are given the so-called card A. It grants the right to reside in Belgium and the immediate right to work. This is the difference between Ukrainians and other asylum seekers. We obtained an exceptional right to work, which is why migrants from other countries dislike Ukrainians in Belgium.
The amount of financial aid for migrants in Belgium
Each family is paid around €1,500 in financial assistance, regardless of the number of family members. This is merely enough to rent modest housing, buy food, and meet basic needs. Since the minimum wage in Belgium is about as much as the financial assistance, many migrants, including Ukrainians, prefer living on welfare to getting a job. For example, it’s the easiest way for mothers with babies: you can get welfare while sitting at home and nursing your children. On the other hand, getting a job helps you integrate into the community, and people treat you better.
Social integration of Ukrainians in Brussels
Brussels is an extremely multinational city. You have no problem integrating here, and neither do you feel like an alien, a migrant. Almost everyone will speak English to you if you don’t know French or Dutch.
You can easily discuss any issue, even in state agencies. Even if you have a basic level of English proficiency, you can survive, find a job, get registered, and become a part of society here.
A Ukrainian needs three months on average to get familiar with the city, do the paperwork, and complete the first level of language training. All this time, I was waiting to get registered to receive welfare. It’s therefore important to have enough money to live on during this period.
Finding a job in Belgium
Before looking for a job, you need to find housing and obtain a special card that grants you the right to work. With this card, you can open a bank account and get insurance, and your children can go to school.
Then, you can register with the employment and vocational training service. You will be offered job options based on your qualifications, experience, and language proficiency. However, if you decline a job offer two or three times, you can be denied financial aid.
Knowing languages is extremely important! If you know French, you have an advantage, and if you don’t, you’ll be offered low-paid jobs, mostly cleaning.
While working in such a job, many also go to free language courses to polish their language skills and get a better job. However, my way turned out to be different.
A super detailed CV for the European Parliament
I started my employment path in Belgium by preparing a Europass CV. It’s a website where an applicant can enter complete information about themself and generate a CV they can share via a link. This CV is different from those we’ve grown accustomed to in Ukraine. We usually make short CVs on a page or two so that a recruiter can look at them and learn everything they need about the job seeker right away. Here, the concept of a CV is completely different. It has to present all your experience, starting from secondary school. What was your specialty in school? What class did you study in? What were the subjects of your theses? What subjects did you study at university? You must list all of your work experience, even if it is minor. Moreover, your CV has to exactly match the documents you submit in support of it.
Another difference from Ukraine is that we usually emphasize what we did and what we achieved in our CVs. To get a job in a European institution, on the contrary, you need to show your responsibilities. I had to change everything I had prepared before. For example, I didn’t write that I held 100 events, but I indicated the types of events I organized and added that my responsibilities were teambuilding, budgeting, etc.
A lucky occasion helped me get a job in the European Parliament
In a sense, I got lucky. The head of the host family I lived with when I came to Belgium worked for the European Commission, and he submitted my CV there. Then, the HR service contacted me.
I was invited to an interview, which was the second step after submitting my CV. In my case, an interview in the European Parliament was a half-hour talk about my life, my responsibilities in the previous job, and my preferred activities. There was nothing too official. Since I worked in communications previously in Ukraine, my experience turned out to be a perfect match for the job they had. Thus, I passed the interview.
The third step was to collect, submit, and verify all the necessary documents. It took me nearly three months. I passed an interview in April and started working in late June.
How the work of the European Parliament is organized
Members of the European Parliament who meet and adopt decisions in monthly sessions and their aides are the core around which everything turns. All other departments ensure the work of the Parliament. They are called Directorates-General and are similar to our departments: Directorate-General for Personnel, ІТ, Translation, Security and Safety… I work in the Directorate-General for Infrastructure and Logistics.
All the buildings where around 7,000 employees work are the property of the European Parliament. All technical services, repairs, elevators, fire safety, catering, and transportation—everything related to logistics and infrastructure is managed by us. Relocations, furniture, repairs, insurance—it’s all our responsibility.
Our working day starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 5:45 p.m. There’s a 45-minute break. Every Friday, we have a short working day that ends at 1:30 p.m., unless a plenary session is planned for next week. August is a month of recess when sessions aren’t held.
Trainees and types of employees at the European Parliament
Graduates can apply for a traineeship at the European Parliament. There’s a Schuman traineeship (Robert Schuman was one of the main authors of the European integration project and one of the founders of the European Union creation mechanism. This traineeship is now available to Ukrainians as Ukraine has become a candidate for membership in the European Union — ). Students are enrolled twice a year to work as trainees for about five months. They are paid a minimum wage and, depending on the outcome of their traineeship, can pursue a career at the Parliament.
There are several types of personnel at the Parliament. For example, I’m a contract agent. The contract is first concluded for a year and can be extended for two years and then for another three, so the maximum term is six years.
There are also permanent staff who are employed for an indefinite time, but they are rotated between the Directorates once every few years.
Becoming an employee at the European Parliament
To be employed by the European Parliament, you need to meet several criteria. The first is knowing two languages of the European Union. There are 24 of them, and you need to have a C1 or C2 level of proficiency in one of them and at least B2 in another.
In fact, I don’t meet the language requirement. Ukrainian and Russian aren’t languages of the European Union, and my English is at a B2 level. I believe they made an exception for me.
To work as an agent in a higher position than me, you need to know three languages.
Besides knowing languages, you need to be a citizen of an EU member state. For signing a high-level contract, in addition to an interview, you also need to pass a comprehensive exam with written and oral assignments, write a motivation letter, etc.
Salaries in the European Parliament
Salaries are based on a grade system. It’s very transparent, and all the information can be found in internal documents. Depending on the number of years of experience, all employees at the European Parliament are assigned a certain grade.
As a Ukrainian, I needed to prove my work experience for this. Unfortunately, our Ukrainian employment record books don’t count here. The European Parliament takes into account the number of person-hours you’ve worked. In Ukraine, we don’t have this written in our employment record books. I needed to submit evidence for every record in my CV proving that I really worked in every given position, company, and period with the given workday so that the employer could count down how many days and hours I had actually worked.
I had to contact each of my previous employers in Ukraine. I drew up a template letter saying that I, the named person, had been working in the named position between the named dates, my workday lasted the named number of hours, and my responsibilities were as follows. This is how I gathered information about every position I had held: where I worked, how I worked, and how much I earned.
In addition, I requested all possible papers from the Pension Fund about the taxes I paid and my work experience and obtained a certificate of no criminal record from the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I also needed to prove my family composition by providing a marriage certificate, my children’s birth certificates, and information about my husband, the place where my children study, etc. This impacts the taxation of my salary.
After providing proof of work experience, an employee is assigned a grade. Each grade has its own basic wage. It is written in your offer. Additional bonuses can be paid on top of this basis, for example, child support, housing support, accommodation allowance, including for buying furniture, etc. Citizens of the EU are also paid travel expenses to go to their home country once a year. After that, the tax rate is calculated depending on the salary size, family composition, number of dependents, etc.
Proof of education for the European Parliament
Another requirement to become an employee at a European institution was to prove my education. Three years of higher special education are enough here.
There are two types of proof for a diploma. The first one is just proving a degree: a bachelor’s or master’s. The second one is proving your specialization. Doctors and teachers, for example, need to provide proof of this type.
Unfortunately, our Ukrainian diplomas aren’t considered proven and need additional proof. I had to prepare another package of documents: diplomas, supplements to them, and a motivation letter.
Next, I needed a translation of my qualification documents to be made by a sworn translator and attested by the municipality.
What languages do you need to know to get a job in Belgium?
Language is very important. The specifics of my work now are that I rarely need to communicate with contractors orally. I correspond a lot, using online translators and choosing word combinations carefully. So far, English is enough for me, but French and German are very important. I avail myself of the opportunity to attend language courses provided by the Parliament to improve my English skills. Last summer, I completed an intensive French course. It was very hard and stressful, with four hours a day, five days a week, on top of my job. I had studied for two months with a Ukrainian tutor before, and it saved me. I recommend taking a basic course with your compatriot and then proceeding to higher levels with native speakers.
The recipe for success: experience, persistence, and a bit of luck
My employment dragged on for a few months. I had to go a long way, gather an enormous amount of documents, and prove all my skills and qualifications. Frankly speaking, I haven’t met other Ukrainians in the European Parliament yet, save for trainees. However, my case shows that everything is possible if you believe in yourself and press on step by step.
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