I came to the UK from Slovakia in 1995 to work as an au pair. A year or two later, the first Slovakian Roma started arriving.  

I had joined the congregation at the St Paul’s Church and United Reformed Church in Dover and I lived around the corner from a B&B. One day the deacon asked if I would mind helping with a Slovakian family at the guest house.  

I will never forget the moment I first saw them. The mother was barely 18, with two young, crying children. At the time men were taken to a detention centre upon arrival, so her husband had been detained. She didn’t speak English and didn’t know where she was, or what was happening. It was awful. And that’s how I got involved with Migrant Helpline. 

The church did drop-in sessions for asylum seekers. I had never heard of Migrant Helpline, but clients from the charity would take me there to help with translation – I thought they were calling it ‘Michael Helpline’! At the time there were just three people working for the charity: Paul Marsh, Sheila Pound and Annie Ledger. How embarrassed I was when I introduced myself to Paul saying “You must be Michael”! 

After volunteering for a couple of years, they offered me a job as a receptionist.  

We had one little corridor with a tiny reception room, opposite Sheila, Paul and Annie’s case worker room. I would check people in. I ended up doing quite a bit of interpreting – helping people buy train tickets to visit family members at detention centres, or registering their kids for school. 

Different nationalities would arrive in waves: Slovakian Roma, Czech Roma, people from Kosovo, Kurds, Algerians, Sikhs… 

For each ‘wave’, I have a different nice memory. We helped clients informally too, for example, helping them practise their faiths. Clients used to have parties and I was always right there on the dance floor! There was a real family feeling. I used to buy a packet of NICE biscuits every morning to share with new arrivals in our corridor. Looking back, it must have cost me a fortune, but it was a small price to pay for helping people who needed it. 

I’ve heard heart-breaking stories, but people were always so pleasant and grateful for the help. 

We got a Home Office contract and grew quickly, moving to a much bigger office in the docks. I became a dispersal officer, loading coaches outside the hotel. I would brief clients on their journey and explain some of the basics they needed to know. I’d never been to places like Manchester or Bradford, so we would find out about the cities they were going to and show them pictures. We had floppy disks with information about their new homes. 

Saying goodbye was sad, but exciting for the clients. Some people had waited months before they were able to move on. I remember them waiting for the coach, saying goodbye to each other – almost a celebration. 

On night shifts, the relatives of the Czech Roma families in Dover used to bring me potato salad and Viennese schnitzel for dinner. The tables had turned: I became the one being fed! 

Some of my fondest memories are of my Kurdish boys – they’ll always be ‘my boys’ to me – how proud I am of them now for being such valued members of communities all over the UK. Clients could apply for a work permit after six months in the UK, and they would come to me saying “You helped me to get a work permit a long time ago, can you please help my friend now?”. And what a pleasure to help it was! 

I left Migrant Helpline after I got pregnant. But I kept in touch with Annie, Sheila and Paul and ended up working as a receptionist at a hotel where we had contact with Migrant Helpline – so I didn’t go far! 

I would still see the people I’d met through the charity at church. I’ve been to their weddings, and their funerals, the christenings of their babies.  

Later on, I worked at a primary school in Dover and there were clients I’d met in 1996 who were now sending their kids to school there. It was really nice to see how they had settled and made new lives here.  

I’m still friends with many of them, and many have built businesses here. I’m so lucky, and so proud of what they have achieved. I know that if I need anything, they will help me out.

People have this perception that people are coming here scrounging – but it’s not true. The people I met through Migrant Helpline are working hard and contributing to society. 

When I first came to the UK I had a visa for six months, £200 and one travel bag. I wanted to work and earn as much as I could and then go back to Slovakia. But my visa got extended, I met my first husband and got married. Twenty seven years later I’m still here. 

Being involved with Migrant Helpline made me a better person. I loved seeing former clients making a success of their lives. I can’t imagine my life now without this mixture of people. 

I learned from spending time with them that there’s no difference between us. I think people are scared of getting to know people they don’t know and are scared of change. But I would encourage them to go and spend time with people they think are different to them. 

I hope that people become more understanding and see that nobody’s too different to themselves. I would like people to be more accepting to other people – not just asylum seekers or refugees, but people with different genders, religions or cultures.  

It was the best job I’ve ever had and the only job I would ever go back to. I’ve loved being able to help and being able to learn. ‘Michael Helpline’ stole my heart.