Sunday, October 21, 2007

Asylum stories - Maria's washing

Maria had been an asylum-seeker from Eastern Europe, who along with all the rest had had an abrupt change 0f status that May Day bank holiday when eight countries joined the EU; no longer liable for eviction from the UK, she would be evicted from her Home Office house, and expected instantly to find work and a new home. While this is most of our people's dream, it's not so easy when you have two kids in nursery, little English, and all your friends are in the same boat.
Maria was a young Roma, with Indian features, always in a low cut full-skirted dress, and with two cute and beautiful little girls. She spoke three languages well, but her English would lead us into many misunderstandings, sometimes but not always amusing.
The first time I met her, unannounced and unofficially, it was to explain that, under pressure from the courts, and actually after the deadline to get out, the government would allow her to stay a little longer to find a job.
I found a woman desperate not to return to her country, overwhelmed with stress, shouting at the kids she clearly adored. In fact, she reminded me, in her looks and her voice and her situation, of someone in my past, who had lived and looked as my mother had lived and looked, in a half-remembered half imagined time.
I made a promise to myself that, of all the Roma families that dramatic spring, I would not allow this one to be defeated and driven out.
And so began a series of visits; she made huge efforts to find work, but it always seemed impossible, and myself I had neither the time not the contacts to find her something, when so many others were in the same situation.
Maria never seemed to trust me - why would she, this stranger, not even from an organisation, just some do-gooder, who would maybe do her harm. I soon saw that experience had made her wary, even of other Roma; indeed I was aware that men from Eastern Europe had made offers to her; and no doubt she had caught my eyes too wandering over her figure.
At the death, I was able to set something up for her, a job to match her circumstances, that would get her into council housing, and secure her in the country. After a miserable time in a homeless hostel with druggies and alkies, abused women and abusive staff, she was rehoused onto a bleak estate, and was happy there.
Suddenly, I noticed a change in her attitude. It had taken months, but n0w she would offer me coffee, sometimes food, and just relax a little, and the little girls were suddenly more playful with me too.
And so did we all live happily ever after, me and Maria and the two little girls? But it wasn't like that at all. She trusted me because it was finally clear that I was really only there to help her, that I expected nothing from her.
On a later visit, she told me that someone had stolen all her washing from the line. I was commiserating, blaming the scummy people around about, too aware of the cost of children's clothing, but she just told me she spent the whole day laughing at the idea of someone trying to wear her clothes. As she said, when you've had the life she's had, this is nothing, although for me it would have been one more thing to add to my baggage of misery.
Rather than the tragedies of a family wrecked by drink, disease, and racism, she chose to tell me about a day in England.
For her asylum appeal, she had had to travel to a tiny town which, outside of the asylum world, was known only as the name of a prison. They tell you not to bring your children, but what could she do? As with courts everywhere, you had to be there for ten AM; as luck would have it, her case was heard last, and she got out at seven with her starving kids and made her way to the station - which was closed for the night.
Not knowing what else to do, she called 999. The first officer to attend either didn't understand or felt it was nothing to do with him, but another one came who drove them over to the next town where the station was open.
Late at night, Maria and the kids arrived in our city centre, confronted by Friday night debauchery in full swing. Of course nobody hurt them, but she was scared. A totally alien world. Some of them were even gay!
Finally reaching home, they found the back door smashed in, and the house trashed. How many times had she told the humorously named "Pukka Pads" about that temptingly insecure lock? Whenever she spoke to them, they shouted at her. As she said, "She lady Manda, very no good".
She didn't even call the Police, just went to bed terrified, listening out all night for intruders, wrapped around her two little girls. Pukka Pads fixed the door next morning, with the same insecure lock.
"So I no cry because take clothes!" she said laughingly.
I pointed out gently that on my first visit, she was crying.
There's a scene in Fistful of Dollars where Clint Eastwood, having rescued the dark and beautiful Marisol, sends her away to safety with her husband and little boy. She asks him "Why you do this for us?" "I knew someone like you once, and there was no-one there to help."
And this feels like the very meaning of my life. For once, only, I am Clint, the Man with No Name, the Stranger, reliving and righting the real or imagined wrongs of my life.
And that is reward enough.

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