The new immigrants: 'If you don't want us here, we'll take our skills and go'

Young, talented Poles like Ewa have come to Britain in their thousands. Now many are feeling very unwelcome
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The Independent Online

Ewa came to do a job nobody else wanted. She flew to England from Poland at the age of 22 to be a carer in a residential home, helping elderly people to bathe, dress, eat and go to the toilet. The hours were long and the pay low. The work was hard, physically and emotionally: she saw, close up, sickness, dementia and incontinence.

Ewa stuck it out. She wrestled with the language and with loneliness, finding friends, a flat, and even love with an Englishman - for a while. She made a life for herself that she likes. Ewa loves England. But now, after two years and so much effort, the way much of England seems to feel about immigrants is making people like Ewa want to leave.

"If we are not wanted here, then it makes us want to go," she says quietly, speaking for herself and her sister.

The people she knows are nice, but the headlines are not. The Polish are stealing jobs, living off benefits and sending the country to hell, a raging taxi driver told her. Remembering his anger with a shudder, she says: "If that is how people feel then maybe it is time to go to another country."

She was afraid this would happen. The first time we met, in the spring of 2004, Ewa was working as a waitress in a vegetarian restaurant in Krakow but preparing to come to England. "Is it dangerous?" she asked then, after seeing angry English people on the television ranting about the "tidal wave" of beggars, criminals and scroungers they feared would flood Britain when eight former eastern bloc countries joined the EU.

Far more people came than was expected - 600,000, it emerged last week - but only a tiny number have claimed benefits. The crime rate has not soared. Those who predicted disaster now say unemployment is being driven up and wages down. But economists and business leaders praise the new Europeans, who contribute about £2.5bn a year to the economy; and research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that employers prefer hard-working EU migrants to the British, who are perceived to be lazier and unwilling to do low-skilled work.

Ewa did not find it dangerous at all. She has made many friends here. "English people are lovely." But the angry people she saw on the television have a new scare now: the anticipated arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians in January. The taxi driver turned on Ewa when he found out where she was from. "That was the worst moment in my life," she says. "I felt terrible. He was a racist to me, just a nasty guy. He said we should not be here. That was the first time I thought 'I might as well go home'."

Now she and her sister, who is teaching here, are discussing what to do. "I do feel guilty when I say I am Polish. I feel guilty because I know there are so many of us here and not everyone is happy with us. I worry that things will get worse."

The Zandman sisters left Poland because they could not find work - Ewa is a physiotherapist but was earning less than £100 a month in Krakow - and they do not want to go back to Poland yet. "It has so many troubles, the government is disgraceful: nationalist, full of prejudice. So we are really thinking, if we are not wanted here, maybe we should go somewhere else?"

If that feeling is shared by many of her compatriots it will be our loss. Reports from Poland suggest Britain got the better part of the EU deal. Even cheap flights were out of reach of the poorest, most desperate Poles in 2004, so those who came had to be highly motivated and willing to do jobs for which they were vastly overqualified. "I did not come here to live on benefits. All my Polish friends here work really hard, they just want to make a living. That should be respected, I think."

Ewa came with an employment agency, but hundreds of Poles continue to turn up at the airports or at Victoria Coach Station every week, with empty pockets and heads full of how easy it will be to get work here. Some end up working for gangmasters on pitiful wages, paying dearly to live in hovels, or on the streets. A London homeless charity has asked for help from a Polish counterpart after meeting so many Poles on its soup runs. "Quite a number have been sold down the river," said Tim Nicholls of the Simon Community last week, "having met unscrupulous people who have put them into forms of slave labour."

Ewa has claimed benefits. "But only for a month, between jobs. I could not survive otherwise. I wrote a letter afterwards to say thank you." She is not so lonely or homesick these days, despite breaking up with her boyfriend. She works in a charity shop in Redhill for not much money, half of which goes on the rent of a room in a shared house. It is simply furnished but looks splendid to her. "If I was still in Poland I could not afford to live in a room like this."

A television was donated by a friend. Her computer is old. But these are treasured possessions she could not have in Krakow. "The biggest thing, for me, is my camera. It cost £100. I could not have afforded it in Poland, no way. But this is a very important way I express myself. If you are denied such a thing, then life can be empty."

Ewa came to learn the language, see the country and earn some money. Her English is good, her walls are decorated with stunning photographs of Welsh mountains that she took herself, but money is still a problem. "England is expensive, and people here use money they do not have. I have never been in debt in my life, but now I have a credit card."

On the night she moved out of her flat in Krakow in 2004, the medieval main square was filling with people. They were celebrating Poland joining the European Union on 1 May. As a lone trumpeter sounded from a tower high above the Rynek Glowny square at midnight, a tearful young man full of honey vodka tried to explain what it meant. "Our history begins again. After the Soviet years, we are equals at last with all Europeans."

Not yet, it seems. Not while their presence in this country provokes resentment and fear. "It seems we are not seen as equal," says Ewa, sadly. "If we were, then people would not say the things they do."

THE FIGURES

26,000 PEOPLE were expected by ministers to come to Britain after 10 countries joined the EU on 1 May 2004.

427,000 WORKERS from those countries have registered in the UK since that date.

600,000 HAVE COME, says the Home Office, once partners, children and self-employed workers are included.

264,560 POLISH people have arrived in the UK since May 2004.

74,300 IS THE OVERALL INCREASE in immigrants here from the 10 accession countries, once the number of departures is subtracted.

350,000 ROMANIANS will come after 1 January, according to their own government's estimates.

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