Britain wasn’t my first choice. Before I arrived in the UK, I lived on the Dutch-German border. Every now and then I was going on the highway, hitch-hiking across the entire EU with very little money and food, with only a sleeping bag, a tent, and a desire to see all those famous cities, everytime surprised that they really did exist.
There was one driver with an odd sense of humour. He dropped me off in the middle of nowhere setting me off wandering in search of some place where I would be able to find another driver. I had nothing to eat for three days, and my backback had all my belongings, so with each steps I was lifting roughly 20 kg.
With that mindset I decided I’ll try and get on the island. In the UK I could simply walk into a work agency; in the Netherlands I couldn’t yet work legally (we were hiding from helicopters searching for illegal workers).
Britain was an island, which meant trapping myself on it with only one way to go: forward. I found a driver who gave me a lift from Antwerp all the way to a small town in the Merthyr Tydfil area and that was how I started: with £30, a tent, a sleeping bag, and limited language, but still able to communicate. In other words, I jumped into darkness, expecting from reality nothing but some bruises. I could move on a different planet as well. I wasn’t equipped with general (British) knowledge, so I didn’t know that I didn’t know. But I found a job fairly quickly, and a place to sleep after a few nights, not due to my amazing skills, but thanks to people I met.
Yet they weren’t my friends, nor my family, and apart from their ‘kick-up’, for which I’m going to be always grateful (even though whilst helping me they made some cash along the way), their role was over, as they couldn’t replace all my social networks I’d left behind to deteriorate over the years. I started existing as a worker, and nothing else. There was not a single person I could talk to.
After work I had nothing else to do, but watching tv shows to improve my English, which happened thanks to the Paul O’Grady Show, the Simpsons, and the books I was reading with difficulty with a dictionary at the speed of one page per hour. For some time I was reacting strangers speaking Polish on the street like I’d met long lost friends, and their reaction to me was the same. We started building parallel networks to the local ones, replacing what we’d left, which shows how hard it is to integrate if one comes from a similar cultural background, yet alone.
If you are on your own, and if you exist only as a worker, there is no one to support you if you fall, and trust me – it is very easy to fall all the way to the bottom. All it takes is being not needed for two weeks, and you have to sleep for six weeks rough just to keep the next job in the city 50 miles away from the one place you can take a shower. I know how it feels to wake up because of the cold, to run round in a few circles to warm up a little and fall asleep quickly before it’s time for another circle. I was hiding from cold nights and rain on train stations and stairwells, sleeping at cinemas and on the buses – but I knew that there was no point in giving up. I knew that once I’ll hold a job for long enough, all the other pieces of the picture would fall into place.
The surprising thing for me is that, after going through all that, and once all these basic existential problems were solved and I had my own warm bed, and a kitchen to cook my food and a shower – that was the time when without any warning I got really depressed and suicidal.
I had been hearing Leavers for twelve years now, in private and in public, making unchallenged anti-EU and anti-immigration remarks in private, and in public. Only the trade deals argument was new to me. I’ve heard those voices growing in strength, so much that they felt it was ok to tell me in polite conversation that my very presence in this country is destroying public services and housing for everyone else. And I wasn’t at all surprised by the vote to Leave. I started learning a new language one year before the referendum. I couldn’t vote, and Leavers decided to change my life with the power of their vote that showed their xenophobic desire to finally get rid of us.
So I’m going to vote with my taxes and my purchasing power. I’m older now, so sleeping on the streets is out of the question, but with my experience it should be easier this time around. The one thing I’ve lost is compassion for the people who voted for Brexit because they couldn’t find a job, and for anyone who feels lonely in their own country.