A personal account of the everyday problems encountered by one eastern European attempting to make a new life in the UK.
I should have realised from the start that Elena lived in a fairy land with her God. I had broken my arm in the snow and we needed help in the house. She came for an interview as a cleaner, looked us in the face, was down to earth, volunteered she had lied on the phone about where she lived – it was in fact on a caravan site at the junction between two motorways. The pastor at the Baptist Church just allowed her to use his address. We took our time chatting over a cup of tea as we sized her up and then found to our horror that all the time her husband and two children under age 3 were waiting in the car in the freezing cold at the bottom of our drive. Would they come in? No they are used to it. Is the caravan cold? Oh no, Romania is much worse, there the water is frozen in the pumps.
That was two years ago. She came to see us yesterday. She is jobless, homeless, husbandless, childless and pregnant – she is not sure how many months as she had to miss her scans. She tried every which way to establish a new life in Britain for her children. By the ages of 2 and 4 they had known nothing except the inside of a small caravan, which rocked when the wind blew. Elena trawled place after place to see where she might afford a small flat – but the family just could not compete in the market. She sent the children back to Romania to live with in-laws in a small village in the mountains. She missed them so much, she brought them back – after her husband spent weeks clearing cupboards in the caravan to create a bedroom, which he painted with Disney animals. But the children were growing up and needed more time and space than they could give them. She had to send them back again. She skypes when she can and they tell her about the ducklings and goslings that have been born. She had dreams for them of school uniforms, book shelves, English education and a foothold in a new life.
Without the children, she could work more hours. She took on pizza deliveries at weekends, travelling on her small motor bike some twelve miles a night just to get to the shop. She found a couple at the church who let her and her husband have a room in their house at a low rent, so they could save for the deposit they needed to put down to rent a two-bedroomed flat. But it was not to be. Her husband, who had had his own business in Romania and been a skilled painter of icons (his commission dominating the village church), was unable to hold down a job – his weak frame, poor health and quick temper saw to that. He tried painting, odd jobs, machine embroidery, garden clearance but nothing seemed to work out.
Then she found the ideal job for them both, which came with a roof over their heads – deep-cleaning student accommodation in university residences across Britain – the pay £6.50 an hour, the hours from 8am to 9 or 10pm. He found the carrying of industrial cleaners up and down stairs too much, she, now three or four months pregnant, carried on till the contract abruptly ended three weeks early in the middle of September. Now he is back in Bucharest, taking an HGV course. She is on a friend’s sofa in north London, their life’s possessions in various sheds, while she hopes at last to have a scan at the hospital and find out when her baby is due.
Cast out by her family when she married an older man from the mountains, desperate not to be associated with the media’s portrayal of indolent Roma (her mother is Roma) Elena has had to be self-reliant. And she has lived her life by the book – both the Bible and state rules. She insisted on records and receipts and returns. She kept the Sabbath day holy. She tried to improve her English, borrowed books to read. She did everything a good migrant should.
Yet there she was outside Sainsbury’s wrapped in the same threadbare grey baggy cardigan, with nothing to show for her endurance and sacrifices.