Eastern European Roma in London: Two Strange Stories

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I met them in the offices of London gynecologists, both accompanied by a person of other than British nationality, who wasn’t able to speak the girls’ native Czech or Slovak language. Both were less than twenty years old and knew only little English. Strangely, both seemed somehow reluctant to talk about the circumstances that brought them to England.

I admit my imagination might be too vivid, and maybe I just read too much on human trafficking and illegal import of cheap workers and prostitutes from Easter Europe. But what if there was really something wrong?

Story # 1: Let’s call her Eveline

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarie Stopes International is a nonprofit organization that operates “sexual health clinics” in the UK. In fact, that‘s only a slightly nicer name for abortion factories. Everything happens quickly and discreetly. In less than four hours the “job“ is done and the patient, still dazed by sedatives, goes home. If they are interested, the clinic can provide them with contraceptive pills or implants, both free of charge.

It was this place where I arrived nervously for my first interpreting job. In the reception lounge, a petite brunette is sitting, for the purposes of this story I’ll call her Eveline. She looks barely fifteen years old but is already nineteen.  She tells me she came to England one year ago and works as a helper in a pub.  Accompanying her is a middle-aged woman who speaks neither Czech nor Slovak. Later I learn that she originally came from Iran but has already lived in the UK for several years. It seems she really cares for Eveline and is genuinely concerned about her state.

I sit with them, waiting for the doctor to call us. At one moment, the woman opens up and tells me Eveline used to date her son. „Does your son speak Czech? “ I ask, surprised. “No,” she replies. I can’t help but feel confused. Everything Eveline knows from English, she has picked up during the past year. She admits herself that she struggles in communication (“Sometimes they tell me to bring a chair and I bring a fork,” she laughs about the language barrier at work.)

The nurse calls us for a brief medical check. She seems a bit puzzled as this is Eveline’s second abortion in less than six months. According to the information she gave to doctors previously, she already gave birth to another baby, three years ago. Now she seems to be eight weeks pregnant. “Haven’t you used any protection? Maybe a condom? ” the nurse asks,” or did it tear? “” Yeah, it tore,” Eveline replies …

After the examination, we return to the waiting room. Four patients are scheduled for the procedure before Eveline. We are chatting a bit, trying to make her more relaxed. With Eveline I talk in Czech, with her companion in English. I ask Eveline whether she came to England with her family. She says no, her family lives in northern Bohemia. I ask if she misses them. “No,” she replies promptly and without hesitation.

Then the Iranian woman starts talking. She would like to get a council flat for Eveline. Apparently, she is somehow concerned about the conditions she is living in.  Six months ago, when Eveline was pregnant previously, it was her who took her to Marie Stopes. That time, Eveline had had neither the National Insurance Number nor any health insurance.  The woman arranged everything for her so she could undergo the procedure free of charge.

At one point Eveline mentions that her and the woman‘s son (supposedly her ex-boyfriend) were once arrested. She doesn’t disclose any details, but somehow I become convinced she must be illegally here. I feel sorry for her; I wonder what chances in life does a girl, obviously born into a socially excluded Roma community of Northern Bohemia, have in life whatsoever. Would there be anyone to help her if she ever decides to return home?

About half an hour later, the nurse calls Eveline to get ready for the procedure. She is scared. I am not going to accompany her to the operations hall. They will call me when she wakes up to explain her how she should behave in the weeks after the abortion.

Forty minutes later I am entering the recovery room. Four women who had the surgery before Eveline are lying on the beds. Eveline is sick, she throws up repeatedly. She is very tired and obviously would like to sleep a little bit more, her head falling aside. I want to give her more time, but the nurse urges me to fill in some questionnaires with her and translate the instructions for the next weeks.  After another thirty minutes we are leaving.

On the way home I can’t stop thinking about the whole thing. The stupid story about the torn condom! And who actually was the father of her child? Did she go with him willingly? If she was raped, would she dare to talk about it? And would anyone listen to her? What if she doesn’t work only as a helper in the kitchen? Those two abortions within six months seem a little suspicious. Maybe I should have asked more…

Story #2: Margaret and her strange partner

Just a few days later, I get another job. When I read the details, I can’t help thinking about Eveline. Birth centre of a hospital in Edgware, the client (I’ll call her Margaret) speaks Slovak.

Edgware is an unprepossessing suburb of London, at the end of the Northern metro line. The hospital’s birth center, on the contrary, is a nice and cozy department. The nurse at the reception desk sends me to a waiting room equipped with comfortable cushioned sofas. The client is not here yet.

About five minutes later, a pale skinny woman, or I’d better say a girl, appears in a doorway; her guide just one step behind her. I can’t tell his nationality. He might be a Roma, an Indian or a Pakistani. He introduces himself as her boyfriend but he speaks neither Slovak nor Czech. Her, as well as Eveline, understands English only a little. “What a strange relationship,” I say to myself.  The nurse sends her to the bathroom to get a urine sample; I have to explain her everything. Her boyfriend is going with us. She talks quietly, timidly, as if afraid to speak. I ask her where she comes from. From eastern Slovakia, she replies.

The nurse calls me to speak on the phone with a Patients’ Admissions’ Manager. Margaret missed an appointment with her yesterday. She was supposed to bring her passport and a proof of residency but she failed to show up. They must see her proof of health insurance, otherwise they can’s treat her free of charge. According to the information available to the manager, Margaret arrived to England in August to join her husband.

I’m trying to convey the content of the phone call to Margaret: “So you’re in England since August?” I ask. “Yes,” she answers quickly. “We came here with the whole family. First, my father got a job here, then me, my mother and my sister came to join him,” she adds promptly without me even asking. Obviously, the manager had different information. Her boyfriend wants to know what the phone call was about. I explain to him in English that Margaret missed an appointment yesterday. He says, they did not know about it. Apparently, he is completely in charge of Margaret’s business…..

A midwife, a beautiful young Muslim woman, comes and takes us to the office. Margaret is at 19 weeks pregnant…

Margaret’s boyfriend goes with us. It seems that despite my presence as an interpreter, Margaret lets him do all the talking and just keeps nodding shyly. Before answering any question, she looks at him self-consciously as if seeking his approval.  “You’re her friend, partner or spouse?” the midwife asks. “Everything,” replies the man. “Well, you are her husband only if you have a ring,” she cuts him off. It seems she finds the whole situation uncomfortable.

She asks Margaret whether she is working – No. Does he have any problems? No. Pain? No. Suddenly, the boyfriend asks a rather surprising question – he wants to know whether the hospital could help Margaret get council housing (I recall the Iranian woman accompanying Eveline). He says they live together with his brother, who is moving away at the end of December and they can’t afford to rent a place by themselves. Apart from that, he says, the place is not suitable for a pregnant woman as people are smoking there a lot.  The midwife is surprised: “Unfortunately, we can’t help, she is not a British national, and she is not entitled to any benefits or council housing. Even if she was, there is nothing the hospital can do about it.” I recall my previous conversation with Margaret: “She told me her family is in England too,” I say cautiously.  “Is it true?” the midwife asks. Margaret’s boyfriend is prompt with his response: “They live in the north and besides, we can’t go there, her younger sister is attacking her, she keeps punching her in the stomach.” Me and the midwife look at each other with disbelief. There are too many fishy elements in that story.

The midwife tries to make Margaret speak: How does she perceive the whole situation? Is she worried? Is there anything she would like to say or ask? She explains that there is a possibility that in the case of any emergency, Margaret can turn to some shelters for pregnant women and mothers with children. Nothing – still the same shy, absent-minded smile….

As they are leaving, the midwife asks me to wait: “What do you think about it?” she inquires as soon as the strange couple is out of the door. Well, I don’t want to sound paranoid, but it’s a known fact that women from socially excluded environments may fall victims to various gangs time to time.  And unfortunately, according to reports of international charities, Czech and Slovak citizens, together with Romanians are among the most frequently trafficked people within the European Union. Besides, there were far too many inconsistencies in their story. And to be honest, the way she acted, it was kind of suspicious….. It’s quite probable she is illegally here…. “I don’t like it either, I thing they might be forcing her to work as a prostitute,” she expresses my worst fears. “If only she said something, we could have intervened, call the responsible authorities, but there’s nothing we can do about it if she doesn’t say anything.”

If I felt something might have been wrong in the case of Eveline, in the case of Margaret my inner alarm goes off. Suddenly, I see that the two stories had many similar features. On my way home I can’t stop contemplating what more could I have done.

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