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4 June 2021

"They told me not to worry about paying for a plane ticket, that travel would be sorted by them and we’d go by car. I was told I'd have work as a waiter in a very good Chinese restaurant. The man from the agency picked me up in a big truck with 30 other people. I gave them my passport and we set off. The journey was long and uncomfortable. Five days later we arrived in London.” 

New beginnings

Bianca* was excited to start a new life in the UK. She had recently turned 30 and didn’t see a future for herself in her home country of Romania. So when Bianca saw an advert for restaurant staff in London, she got in touch with the recruitment agency immediately.

Bianca arrived in London near the end of 2019 and was sent to work in a Chinese buffet. Her accommodation was provided by the restaurant owner. She discovered she’d be sharing a room with seven other women who worked at the restaurant with her.

A rude awakening

“I worked 16 hours every day from Friday to Saturday. As it was a buffet, I was running with heavy plates all day which was very tiring. I was treated like a robot,” recalls Bianca.

The work was not only physically exhausting, the pay turned out to be non-existent.

“I worked for weeks for free to cover the travel and a two week ‘deposit’, even though I was told the travel would be covered by them. After one month without getting paid, I knew something was wrong. But I was so tired about the situation, and I didn’t speak any English.

I didn’t have the words to say ‘No, I’m not doing this. I’m not your slave.’

Bianca knew she would have to learn English to stand up for herself and escape the situation. It took her six months to build up the courage. During those six months, Bianca felt utterly bewildered and afraid. She says the owners of the restaurant were intimidating and sexually harassed some of the other workers.

Bianca recalls feeling very confused:

“I felt like I was on another planet. I was far away from my country. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have the right documents. I felt trapped. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone.”

From the outside, you think the UK is the best country in the world. I didn’t think anything like this could happen in the UK. I felt like someone had punched me in the face. Is this really happening? It’s crazy that in 2020, people can become slaves.

Route to freedom

After begging for work at other restaurants, Bianca secured another job and left. Her new employers drew up a proper employment contract, and she was finally being paid. With some money in her pocket, Bianca was able to find a room in a house with an elderly landlady who was kind to her. She felt immense relief, freedom and renewed optimism.

Bianca’s new life was going well. She had a good job and a safe place to live. In March 2020, news of the COVID-19 pandemic was intensifying, and fears were growing. Bianca’s landlady caught COVID early on and her symptoms were severe enough to send her to hospital. When she came back from hospital, she was still very sick. The landlady’s daughter told Bianca that because of her mum’s ill health and age, Bianca had to find somewhere else to live.

Bianca had befriended a man who worked in her local newsagent, and when he heard that she needed to find somewhere to live, he offered to rent her the spare room in the house he shared with his wife and two young children. Bianca gratefully accepted and moved in shortly after.

Another downward turn

Bianca’s new living situation wasn’t what she had bargained for. Bianca recalls being treated terribly by the wife, who ordered her around and made her clean, cook and look after the children.

“The wife was horrible to me. She was so aggressive. I gave them all my money from Universal Credit and furlough. I paid my rent. And yet every day, they drove me mad. She would wake me up at 3am screaming at me. The husband and wife argued all the time and were violent with each other. I felt so depressed living there.”

“One night the wife went to a party with a friend and asked me to look after the children. When I said no, she told me to pack my bags and leave. I gathered my belongings and told her ‘better I’m on the streets than living here with you.’”

Bianca tried calling friends to ask if she could stay with them, but lockdown made things difficult, and she found herself sleeping on the streets. Bianca fights back tears when recalling her time on the streets:

The men on the streets were disgusting. They tried to rob me, to rape me. No woman should ever be in that situation. It was also the first time I felt so desperate to eat, to feel like I’m dying to eat. It’s so very sad to feel that hungry.

Finding Glass Door

After three weeks on the streets, Bianca was referred to Glass Door’s dinner service via another homeless charity. Over a plate of hot food, Bianca connected with volunteer Emma. Emma listened as Bianca told her story. From there, Bianca was referred by Emma to caseworker Gemma and offered a room in our hostel.

Gemma began supporting Bianca with a variety of issues. With additional support from the Eastern European Resource Centre, Bianca is being supported to obtain a new passport, has been granted pre-settled status in the UK and has resolved issues with her benefits.

Being at the hostel and meeting Gemma has helped Bianca turn her life around, she says.

“Gemma came from the sky – God must have sent her to me in my life in this moment. She’s amazing. She’s the most beautiful person in my life. She didn’t know me at all, and she’s helped me so much.”

She adds:

Being at the hostel has helped me make so many changes. It’s given me the time and space to sleep, to eat and to correct things in my life. I’m being cared for and I can make my own decisions. It feels amazing to be asked ‘How are you? Do you have a cold?’ The staff take the time to get to know you and they respect you. They have given me the wings, the possibility for a better life.

Looking to the future

Bianca says she won’t let the trauma of the past stop her from pursuing her dreams.

“First I want to study. I want to go to university, and I want to train as a Vet. I will work very, very hard. I don’t care how many hours it takes. I want to stay in the UK, and I want to buy my own house. This is my dream.”

Bianca has now found work as a waiter with decent hours and better pay. She has since moved out of the hostels into her own rented accommodation.

*Bianca's name has been changed to protect her identity.

If you want to help more people like Bianca find safe shelter and support that will help them move beyond homelessness, please consider making a donation.