On the day that Ewa came to England there was supposed to be a flood. Or an invasion. Or even a plague. Millions of asylum-seekers and scroungers arriving by plane and ferry from all over Europe to overwhelm the job market, the health service and the welfare state.
Ewa (pronounced Eva) Zandman, a 23-year-old from Krakow, arrived on a flight to Stansted just after 1 May, the day her country, Poland, and nine others joined the European Union. Some of the headlines she could read with hesitant English were full of hate and fear.
"I was afraid," she remembers, sitting in her bedsit in Reigate, Surrey, nearly six months later. "I saw a television programme in which people were saying very strongly that they did not want us here."
Instead of a flood there was only a trickle. Even more surprisingly, the tide turned quickly. People started going home. The Polish government estimated that up to 15,000 Poles travelled to Britain in the six weeks following EU enlargement - and at least 8,000 of those returned. Ewa knows why.
"It was very hard to be here at first," she says. "I was so tired after working a 12-hour shift. The girl I was living with was screaming on the phone to her husband in Poland that she wanted to go back. I was so lonely. I spent a lot of time texting and sending emails to my family - I could not afford to call them very much - but most of the time I slept. To forget it all."
She was lucky. She had been brought over and trained by a responsible company that runs care homes all over the country. Others who organised their own passage from Poland and other countries found themselves worked to exhaustion by gangmasters, being paid slave-labour wages and charged ridiculous amounts for their lodgings. Those who had believed the Polish media's predictions of easy, wealthy lives for all were hugely disappointed. Rather than going home in glad rags they had to beg relatives to pay for the return flight.
It is remarkable how few of them there were, at least officially. So far only the figures for the first two months have been released. They show that only 24,000 new EU citizens registered for work under the new rules. And of those 14,000 were already in the country before 1 May, working illegally.
Ewa stayed, despite the early trauma. She worked in Torquay at first, then transferred to Reigate in Surrey when another Polish woman there gave up. "I am closer to Poland here than in the West Country," says Ewa in English that has become fluent since May. Her language reflects her education (she trained as a physiotherapist) and interest in literature. There is a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest in English on her bedside table alongside The Tin Drum by Günther Grass in Polish. "EasyJet fly from Luton," she says. "I can go on a weekend: the flight is two hours and it costs £50. I feel calmer to know that whenever I feel very sad and lonely I can go to see my family."
Asked how often she feels very sad and lonely, Ewa smiles. "Quite often. I get depressed often."
It is not because of the job, which she enjoys although it is physically and mentally tiring. One care home manager said it could be like looking after babies that weigh 25 stone. The company recruited from eastern Europe because few British people want a job that involves intimate contact with senility, incontinence and death. The team of 10 carers includes people from Bulgaria, Romania and the Philippines. They are responsible for about 60 residents, some of whom need to be fed, bathed, dressed and helped to the toilet. Or cleaned if they don't make it. "There is lots of moving and handling and lifting," says Ewa. "You wake up in the morning stiff and tired. Bathing is the hardest part of the day. Some of them hate it. They just want to be left in peace. They can beat you and pinch you. They have dementia. They don't know what they are doing."
Ewa works an average of 200 hours a month, usually in 12-hour days. She has a 45-minute lunch break. "I do think it's a lovely place," she says. "We really try to understand their needs, to make them feel at home."
Empathy with the residents can be draining. "They are lovely people. I get really angry. Why do you need to have dementia when you're old? Why do people have to be here and not with their families? I probably think about that too much. Quite often I dream of them, that we are walking together. They are younger, not so dependent, in my dreams."
So how does she feel when her shift finishes at 8pm? "Knackered! I have learnt that one. It is not in my dictionary."
After work Ewa returns to the small flat she shares with another Polish care worker. There are photographs on the wall that remind her of the mountains near her home in Poland. Sometimes she walks the quiet streets of Reigate alone at night.
"I don't know many people here," she says. The long hours mean she has few opportunities to meet new people outside work. "Jenny, my best English friend, used to work at the home. She is marvellous; we are getting on very well together." She has also been to Wales to stay with the son of her former landlady. "Who else do I know? I know some people from the shops, and if they see me on the streets they say hello. But not many really."
It is loneliness that makes her tired, but she has already begun to achieve her main objectives in coming: to learn the language, see the country and earn some money. "I have bought a camera, which would have taken me years in Poland. It was £100."
She was a waitress in a vegetarian café in the Stare Miasto, the Old Town of Krakow, earning 4.5 zlotys an hour. There are about six zlotys to the pound. In a good month she earned 700, but the rent cost 400. A cinema ticket was a rare treat at 35 zlotys. Ewa had trained as a physiotherapist but could not find work. "There is no job for me in Poland," she said in May. "People need physiotherapy but the government does not have the money to pay for it."
Here she earns almost £6 an hour: about £1,200 a month, 10 times the average monthly wage of a university lecturer in Krakow. The rent takes up nearly half.
"I have a much better standard of living here," she says. "The refrigerator is full. I can easily go to Safeway and buy anything I want to - even two big boxes of ice cream and four frankfurters and really good ketchup, Heinz. I couldn't do that in Krakow."
She is contractually bound to work for the same company until May.
"After that, I don't know. I might go back to Poland - to go to the university to get more knowledge, or just to do something with my money, to start my own business." Those do not sound like the words of an "evil EU scrounger", but of a thoughtful woman doing a hard and useful job that nobody else wants. Six months on, even the scaremongers ought to be glad to have the likes of Ewa here.Reuse content