Kiwi.com’s Development Specialist Jerome travelled through China and South East Asia to find a welcoming home in the Czech Republic
Jerome Lijertwood and I are chatting over a coffee in the kitchen of Kiwi.com’s seventh floor. We’ve been talking for about ten minutes when, inadvertently, the conversation turns to race and how welcome he feels in the Czech Republic.
It starts when he tells me about the time he spent teaching in China, when he mentions being “different”. “Being different in China is a fascination,” he says. “In some places in the world, it can be a hinderance. Over there it was just genuine intrigue, which was nice.”
Jerome was born in Swansea but has no trace of a Welsh accent. He moved to London at a relatively young age to study, but also to escape this feeling of difference. The 34-year-old wanted to find a place for himself where there were people he could identify with.
He says: “That’s why I left at such a young age for London. I wanted to find a multicultural city where there were people like me and people different to me; where there was less of a homogenous society as in Wales where everyone looks, and pretty much is, the same.”
After his studies, Jerome began in London’s hospitality and catering industry. He worked for the Ramada and the King Edward VII hospital, where the queen receives treatment.
London provided a better reception, but life there is all-consuming. “I always kept myself busy doing other things,” Jerome says. “But London is difficult if you don’t know the right people or where to go. It’s hard to get those options. It’s a daily grind.”
“It’s a beautiful place and I think it serves a time and a place in your life, but unless you can afford to be there past the age of 35 you need to move.”
An Australian friend was teaching in China at the time, and mentioned that there was an opportunity to work in a school in Yinchuan. “I discussed it with my girlfriend Andrea and she approved. She thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.
“Teaching there was an interesting experience and it’s something that I’m very grateful I did. I wouldn’t do it again but I wouldn’t change the fact that I did.
“People stared but there was no malice. People may have been talking about me but there was no overt racism or discrimination – they’re not going to treat you differently. It was more: “This is interesting and we haven’t seen many people like this so we’ll have a look,” which perhaps in some other places wouldn’t be the case.”
Once he had finished in China, Jerome and Andrea travelled about Southeast Asia for ten months. It was a working holiday. They planned, unsuccessfully, to find somewhere to settle down and open a guesthouse. At the same time they worked with different charities and NGOs operating in the area.
“We were teaching a lot. They need a lot of teachers there but, as is the case, they don’t have a lot of money and they don’t have a lot of resources – you end up doing everything and anything.
“In Cambodia we helped with building a water filtration system as well as the bamboo shacks which were to become the schools. Then we were working with some of the families in the area to try and get donations from organisations, like Médecins Sans Frontières.”
“To see people so grateful for something that you think is not much is a strange feeling, but it really empowers them and helps empower the next generation. It really makes a difference.”
Andrea, who Jerome recently married, is Czech and had always thought of returning. At the end of their travels, they went back to London to tie up some loose ends and then moved to Prostějov. Andrea had found an exciting job, and Jerome had heard that there were lots of opportunities with international companies in Brno.
One appeared to be a good match with his skills. It was at Kiwi.com, and he applied when he arrived in the country in September. HR thought that he would be better suited to a different job and Jerome started with the company in a higher position to the one he applied for in the customer experience team.
“It was interesting, it was challenging,” Jerome says. “The role was a great way to see how the customers, or a certain percentage of the customers, feel about Kiwi.com. It was a great way into the company.”
In May, he moved to the development team, where it is his job to assist the customer support staff gain new skills and develop a career path within Kiwi.com.
It is a brand new team, and that holds its own challenges. “I’ve never worked for a startup or a new company before. In every job I’ve had previously, everything was defined – this is the role and this is how you do it. Whereas here the department was new,” Jerome says.
“So we had to work out how we were going to work to the best of our ability, what we were going to do, and how to make an impact.”
After all his difficulties growing up, Jerome has also found a place where he feels he can just be himself and be comfortable in his own skin. Jerome says: “For one thing, I’ve come to terms with being ‘different’ as I’ve aged.
“I still go to small places in the country and feel that animosity but I think I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and I could have also used it as an excuse if things didn’t go well.
“And I haven’t felt that in the Czech Republic. I was always reluctant to travel in Central and Eastern Europe because I thought I was going to be confronted with hatred.
“But coming here, I now think the people are probably some of the most open-minded – they’re very receptive and welcoming. It’s been positive.”
Jerome is very self-aware and analytical. He is fiercely intelligent with a razor wit, and is deeply considerate and polite. With these traits, he is more of the classic British gentleman than many of the people he struggled with growing up.
And he is happy: “I wouldn’t want to do a job that was easy, and this is a good challenge,” he says. “I’ve met some lovely people both inside the company and out.
“Everyone’s been so accommodating and it’s really made settling in so much easier. I feel like I’ve made genuine friends and met genuinely nice people. I’m very happy.”