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Speaking for Ourselves

‘I spent three months in my room’: Young migrants face loneliness in lockdown

‘I spent three months in my room’: Young migrants face loneliness in lockdown

Silvia Tadiello

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - ‘I spent three months in my room’: Young migrants face loneliness in lockdown

I first read about the news of a possible second Covid-19 lockdown in England while having breakfast before going to work, early on a Saturday morning. The sun hadn’t risen yet and reading the news I had a feeling that the darkness would last, uninterrupted, for the next four weeks. 

The next day at work, after the lockdown had been officially announced, the questions being asked over and over were typical of a group like ours, made up of immigrants mostly from continental Europe: What are you going to do? Are they still going to pay us? How much? Are you going home this time? Wait, what, they’re banning outbound travel? Do you think they’ll extend the lockdown? Hey, if they do, perhaps this year we get to go home for Christmas as we won’t have to work on Boxing Day. It’s always easy to joke when there’s a feeling of being all in the same boat, but to me, lockdown meant that we would all be cooped up in many tiny personal dinghies instead.

For many from my generation who were keen to escape their ordinary lives in their home countries, London has always been one of the top choices, as a poll from 2018 shows. European millennials have been graced, so far, by the free movement policy, which allows EU citizens to feely live and work in any EU country without the need for visas or permits. This means that deciding to move to London for six months, a year, maybe two, takes roughly the time to book a plane ticket and pack a bag. (Yes, this will end very soon. We have been lucky.) 

Many of us came here this way, after completing our studies, after looking endlessly for entry-level jobs in our home countries, or maybe just after deciding to go on an adventure. Ask us, and many of us will say that we came here knowing that we’d also go back at some point. This is why you’ll find us working jobs barely above minimum wage: we’re not here to have a career, we’re here to have fun, to learn the language, to see how we do by ourselves. This is also why, if you’re one of us, much of your social circle changes every few months. Someone is always leaving and someone new has always just arrived. You can have friendships, but never long-lasting ones. And this is why so many people I know spent the first lockdown – and the present one – essentially alone.

When I spoke to a co-worker of mine whose family lives in Europe, after coming back to work in the summer, she told me she was relieved that lockdown was over. “I don’t get along with my flatmates, so I basically spent three months in my room,” she told me. “I didn’t talk to anyone. I’d only leave to go to the supermarket. I barely went to the kitchen to cook meals.” I wondered how many went through the same. 

Another friend’s family lived in the worst-hit area of her home country, her sister worked at a hospital, and her dad was a vulnerable person. I could see in her eyes what we all felt: fear for ourselves and for the people we loved, and helplessness for being so far away from them. The near-total cancellation of flights during the first lockdown and the ‘travel ban’ during the second have made it virtually impossible for us to travel to our home countries.

“Besides, what am I supposed to do?”, a co-worker asked one of the last days before the shop closed this month. “What if they call us back to work and give us two days’ notice? I’d have to quarantine for two weeks if I was coming from home.” 

When the shop was open, travelling to a country outside of the travel corridor meant that the quarantine period after coming back to the UK counted as unpaid leave. The company hasn’t told us what would happen if we travelled while the shop is closed, but what’s certain is that either way we’d lose two weeks of fully paid work. 

Several people I knew left London for good in the spring, and I don’t blame them. With little to no support network, close relationships, or career, why would anyone want to spend the scariest months of our lives alone? Others had commitments here, such as a rented room or flat with a contract that couldn’t be ended, or the knowledge that there wasn’t really anything that they could do at home if they went back, or again the fear of missing out on work because of the two-week quarantine. Many, like me, were afraid of catching the virus while travelling and then infecting their families. So we stayed in our rooms and waited.

London is so lonely that there have been art exhibitions about it; a London Assembly article from last year spoke of a “loneliness epidemic” in the city. Coupled with the enforced isolation of lockdown and the surge in mental health issues caused by the pandemic, it’s easy to see how my friends and I, and so many like us, are in a very precarious position. Our workplace has offered no support services. Our families are far away. Still, it feels wrong to complain when we are perfectly aware that so many people are doing far worse than us. None of the people I know that are struggling have looked for help, and many prefer to joke about their worries rather than having serious conversation about them. This isn’t a coping mechanism that can work in the long term, but it’s what we make do with for now.

The first lockdown came with the spring. The nice warm weather and the longer days gave us a feeling of hope as we watched the infections curve slowly flatten. Six months later, it feels as if we’re starting from scratch, but this time the days are only getting darker and colder.

 

TOP IMAGE: Day 057 by Holly Lay, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)