For the love of Karol…

I used to be happy in Poland. Married with 3 children our apartment was not big, but with the little we had I turned it into a loving home for the 5 of us and in all those years we lived there you could hear the laughter of our kids already when you turned into the corner of our street.

I was a tram driver – a regular job with a steady wage, which I enjoyed. Then I had a serious accident at work, which affected me physically and psychologically.  I spent 3 months in hospital and, afterwards I couldn’t go back on the trams.

After this our life changed. My marriage broke down and now not only the happiness was gone, but suddenly I was also faced with money problems. I looked for another job, but jobs were scarce in my town and didn’t pay well. I struggled to provide for myself and my two younger children who were still living with me.

Worrying about this I started to become quite depressed and anxious. When I met my new partner I thought I was blessed with happiness again and I was overjoyed when we then had our baby boy, who we named Karol.

But the money worries did not stop and with the responsibility for another little person in my life I was starting to get even more anxious than before. Many nights I cried myself to sleep.

Then one night my phone rang and an old friend who moved to England 10 years ago, told me about her life in the UK and she also told me about the jobs in the factory in St Helens on Merseyside where she had settled….

I had visited my friend back in 2012. Back then our life in Poland was good, and I had no thoughts about leaving. I remember thinking that St Helens – an industrial town in NW England that I was told had seen better days – was not unlike the part of Poland where I come from. This was in the industrial south, where a lot of mining, manufacturing and factories had also closed down, and unemployment was a big problem.

But now listening to her life in St. Helens sounded like the solutions to all of my problems. But I hesitated at first. My English was literally non-existent. How would I cope in another country where I did not even know the language? But my friend kept persuading me. She told me about how many other Polish people worked in the factory, she told me how quickly she and her husband settled in…

The more I thought about it the more appealing it got.

My friend also had very little English when she went over, and yet seemed to be managing. I asked her about that. She said that a local British Pole (I’ll call him Mike) who had lived all his life in St Helens had helped her with finding a job, accommodation, opening a Bank Account and all those everyday things, which suddenly become incredibly difficult without knowing the language. I had met Mike in 2012, and he seemed kind and reliable. He was completely bi-lingual even though he’d never lived in Poland, and this impressed me.  And, of course, he was very knowledgeable about procedures and life in the UK, which I could see was different from life in Poland.

My friend had given me a contact number for Mike; I debated whether or not to ring him, and I took the plunge. He was pleasant and helpful, and confirmed that the jobs were still there. He said there were around 1000 Poles in St Helens, and there was a good Polish Shop and Poles who did hairdressing and the like from home. He said there were two or three workplaces where Polish people were in a majority – including a Bottling Plant, with 125 workers, of whom 120 were from Eastern Europe!

He also offered to help me with the ‘basics’ as he called them if I came over.

Things got worse for us in Poland and whenever anxiety about our future hit really bad, I kept thinking about what my friend and also Mike had told me about life in the UK…

It was a hard winter and a hard spring for us.

Then in the summer my friend from the UK was visiting my town and she offered to take me and my family with her to St. Helens, where she lived. “You will settle in quickly”, she said “and then you do not have to worry anymore”

Our passports were up to date, there was no job to quit, I only had a one-month’ notice period for our little apartment and we had not much to take with us and suddenly I felt this determination inside me. “Let’s do this”, I said, “We will move to England! We will be happy again”

Before I knew it we were on our way to the UK.

 My partner went over first in June 2016, a couple of weeks before that fateful Referendum, together with my youngest son from my previous marriage. My son has some English, which was useful. All the same they needed Mike’s help in finding somewhere to live and in getting work.

I joined them on my 43rd birthday – August 21st 2016.

On the way to our new home Karol and I sang “The wheels on the bus go round and round” in the car, so we could practice some English and take the tension away a little about how we would be greeted in the UK.

The Referendum had given a result that no-one had really expected and things were becoming uncertain. However, the Polish Media were keeping a close eye on things, and we knew it would take quite some time before the UK actually left the EU. In the meanwhile it appeared that most things would stay as they had to date. Although St Helens voted to leave the EU, my friend had told me that the she had not met with any hostility from the local population, and that St Helens was, generally, a good town in which to live.

I found work, but it wasn’t easy. I first worked in the Bottling Plant with a mix of day and night shifts. At times we worked 72 hours per week, and there was no overtime paid. Just the UK Minimum Wage. However, the sheer number of hours meant that the 4 of us could live and even put some savings aside. The work at this Plant, however, didn’t last long. Some people were laid off – including me. I still don’t know why… Almost immediately, however, Mike helped me to find work with another employer who makes UPVC window frames and other items, and 3 years on, I’m still there. It’s not as exhausting as the Bottling Plant, but is still physically demanding.

On my personal front, things haven’t worked out very well. I’m no longer with my partner, though he is still in St Helens and lives not far away.

When he left my money worries came back. Then Mike, my British-Polish friend, told me about Tax Credits, which was designed to support people like me, who, despite working hard, are still on a low income.

Mike helped me to apply for Tax Credits to top up my income. Though I work 45 hours per week on average, minimum wage earnings did not cover our expenses.

 There was no problem with this application via HMRC. Now, however, I do have quite serious problems as St Helens has become a Universal Credit (UC) Area, and I have had to re-apply for Tax Credits via UC. I didn’t fully understand why I had to re-apply but Mike explained that UC is administered by a different Government Department (the Dept for Work and Pensions – DWP) and they need a new application.

This new application has been very stressful. The biggest problem has been proving my identity. In the past my Polish Passport has always been enough – but not this time. Scans have been rejected. I don’t understand why. I know that the UK will be leaving the EU at the end of the month but, as it is still in the EU, I thought our documents would still be recognized.

I’ve never felt very certain in the UK, partly because of personal circumstances and partly because my lack of English makes me feel vulnerable. But now my documents are not acceptable and I feel even more vulnerable – they are all that I have. I know our status as EU Nationals will change once the UK leaves the EU, but I feel it has changed already, and not for the better.

I have not found many English friends yet, because despite being quite firm in singing “The wheels on the bus go round and round” my English has not improved much since I arrived, because at my work place most people only speak Polish or other Eastern European languages. Not a good place to learn English… 

When I get home I look after Karol, do the cleaning, washing, cooking and only when Karol does his homework, I also get a chance to learn a little. I want us to belong so badly – this is our new home and finally I can hear Karol laughing as my other 3 did when they were young…

My old schoolfriend and I have been going to English classes and Mike has also been helping us with vocabulary and everyday phrases and idioms; however, English is very different from Polish, and it’s not coming easily! I know I have to persevere, not just for myself but for my 5 year old boy as well. He’s been at school barely 15 months and already I feel his English is better than mine!

Another challenge is looming. I have to apply for Settled Status. I know that, as I’ve been here less than 5 years, I can only get Pre-Settled Status. This reduces my current EU rights and entitlements quite considerably. I won’t manage the application on my own – but I know that my guardian angel Mike has done one or two…

My life hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses since I came to the UK, but I’ve got by.

Now, however, I’m feeling the thorns much more than the flowers…  

© Wioletta from Wroclaw, Poland (translated into English by Mike)

First published 16th January 2020

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