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East-to-West Migration Remaking Europe

Janis Neulans, 39, a laborer from eastern Latvia, rides the train from suburban Dublin into the city to have his rsum typed. He arrived in Ireland with high hopes for a job but little money.
Janis Neulans, 39, a laborer from eastern Latvia, rides the train from suburban Dublin into the city to have his rsum typed. He arrived in Ireland with high hopes for a job but little money. (By Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)

"Our young Irish don't want to do these jobs anymore," said Alfie Lambert, who runs a fast-growing business in County Wexford, in southeastern Ireland, that makes door frames for the booming Irish building trade.

Lambert said only two of his 40 factory employees were Irish, and about half were Latvian. "Out of 10 Latvians, you'd have 10 good workers," he said. Lambert hired a Latvian woman to help him recruit more by placing ads in newspapers in Riga. Latvia, with 2.2 million people and a 10 percent jobless rate, has responded eagerly, sending 14,000 workers to Ireland in the past 18 months.

"We can't live without the Latvians," Lambert said. "We can't grow without them."

No Time to Bargain

It's a bitter cold Riga morning when Neulans steps out of the Aurora Hotel, his black cowboy boots clicking sharply on the wet concrete sidewalk. He has a floppy mop of blond hair, a blond mustache and a gap in his smile where a couple of teeth are missing. A thick-shouldered country boy and former Soviet army soldier, he speaks only when necessary. He agreed to let a Washington Post reporter accompany him on his quest to Ireland.

He climbs into his car, a pea-green 1984 Volvo with a leaky roof, and pulls into midday traffic in Riga, a beautiful old riverfront city of cobblestones and red-tiled roofs and the tall onion spires of Russian Orthodox churches. Now, as an E.U. capital, it also has foreign biotech and information technology firms giving jobs to better-educated Latvians.

But not Neulans, whose schooling focused on operation of heavy machinery. He drives by the vast shipyard where he used to scrape rust. He talks about his home village, Asishova, a tiny clutch of houses in the distant countryside. His mother is in the hospital with eye problems. His father died long ago. His two brothers, one of whom lost a leg to diabetes, tend a few pigs and cows.

His life's savings have dipped below $250. So he steers toward a used car dealership, where he hopes to get $350 for his car. A bored-looking salesman in a baseball cap smushes out a cigarette, kicks the Volvo's tires and looks under the hood.

"I couldn't drive this any farther than the nearest junkyard," he says. He offers $170. Neulans takes it. There's no time to bargain.

"When I come back from Ireland, I'll buy a brand-new Volvo," he says.

House of Immigrants

It's snowing when Neulans arrives at the Riga airport the next night. He is traveling with a new acquaintance, Vladimir Novikov, who called ahead to a Latvian friend in Dublin who might meet them at the airport. Or he might not. Beyond that, Neulans has no strategy.

The gate area for airBaltic Flight 661 is filled with a few businessmen in suits, a couple of families with small children and a lot of young job-seekers. Neulans shuffles down the jetway to the waiting 737. "What's it like when we take off?" he asks, settling into his aisle seat.

His eyes widen on takeoff; he smiles at the smoothness. He turns down the $5 sandwiches and soft drinks on the passing cart. Eventually he falls asleep, but wakes in time to see the lights of Dublin glowing out the windows.


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