“My community is here in Bristol. I feel supported by people who care about me. It’s where I have a future.”
Hielen is an Italian citizen living in Bristol and has been waiting for an administrative review under the EU Settlement Scheme, which she applied for just days before the end of 2020.
She’s a mother who could not travel back to see her child, can’t easily prove her right to work or rent in the UK and is experiencing a significant impact on her wellbeing due to being stuck in the Home Office’s backlog of hundreds of thousands pending applications.
“Since I applied to the EUSS, I’ve lost money. I’ve lost weight. I’ve lost my peace of mind. I’m really worried about my child and want to be able to take care of him. Everyday I live with fear and uncertainty looming over me. I try to stay positive because I know that one day this will be over.”
When I first arrived in Bristol in 2015, I had my life packed in two big suitcases. It was me and my child, walking down St Paul’s and taking in this new city. A wonderful thing happened then. People from the local Black community started waving at me, with big smiles and caring faces. Someone came straight to me and helped me with my luggage so that I could walk with my child on a narrow sidewalk. I still remember that moment as it was yesterday. I take it as a sign and from that moment on this amazing town shared in my burden and healed me.
The same thing happened in the neighbourhood where I settled later, Bishopston. Although there was a racial divide among the two neighbourhoods, I never felt discriminated against for being Black and European at any time.
In Italy, when the pandemic started, I was working as a FE lecturer and an independent researcher, in topics such as Black geographies, critical race studies, racial inequalities, postcoloniality and diasporas. Despite my work, I experienced systemic racism and as a citizen, a worker, a single parent, a woman, I felt alone and abandoned. That feeling was not new to me and like many Italians, I’ve had to migrate abroad for a decent life.
In Bristol, I’ve never felt left with no options. Since I returned in May 2021 the city has changed. Re-development projects for wealthy investors, new multi-storey buildings for indebted university students have changed the landscape of Bristol. Nonetheless, the higher cost of living has been compensated by ‘creative’ housing options and community cohesion. I myself found a place to live near The Downs in Redland under a guardianship scheme which is a short-term housing solution in a saturated rental market.
Over the last summer, I joined African dance classes and a storytelling group at Dance Music Arts Collective that used to be located at the Hamilton House in Stokes Croft before redevelopment took over community space in 2018.
I had the opportunity to work as Event member for Circomedia - Center for Contemporary Circus and physical theater - located in St Paul’s and I am glad to have had the opportunity to serve St Paul’s Learning Center and Docklands Community Center by volunteering at cultural events.
This is when I feel Bristolian: a shared sense of community and a love for the city of Bristol permeating space and time, and an incredible number of opportunities to learn and grow arising everyday.
My son met positive role models - drummers from my African dance class are like his uncles, entertaining and teaching him the value of our African heritage. That reminds me of when Eritreans were a strong and flourishing community in Milan back in the 80s and we, children, were learning about our identity, language and culture through community gathering and music festivals.
My boy was doing really well in school, getting settled really quickly. At the beginning he didn’t know the language, one year later he asked me if he was Italian or British - I replied ‘you can be both’. He was never discriminated against for being Italian and mixed-race. When I needed support with his congenital condition, we were properly followed up by the Children’s Hospital, my manager at Southmead Hospital arranged flexible shifts and the school provided support teachers along with his treatments. It was amazing how such a heavy burden was relieved by the people I met.
An important moment for me was when in 2016 I voted for the first Black Mayor in Europe - Marvin Rees. I felt seen and represented, that I wished this election would have helped the city to overcome racial and economic disparities.
Just a month later, me and all EU citizens watched as the Brexit referendum unfolded and we were powerless, without the right to vote or have a voice in this issue which changed our future forever.
Significant changes occurred after Colston statue was toppled in June 2020 and Colston was removed by the iconic Tower (Bristol City Center, June 2021)
Anti-covid measures: Drawing Hearts to make social bubbles in Castle Park (June 2021, Castle Park)
Unfortunately, I’ve had to leave Bristol due to my child’s health needs which were not covered by the NHS. He was diagnosed with a congenital condition relapse that needed time and long-term care in order to avoid invasive surgery. That was a point of no return. His healthcare plan was available and covered by the public health in Italy and I wanted to make the best decision for him. We both had a very tough time over the last few years, and being caught in the Covid-19 pandemic away from our Bristol home. It was horrendous being isolated from our network of friends and family in the UK.
When I came back to Bristol in May 2021, the same people I’d met and made friends with welcomed me back with open arms. I didn’t have a place to stay and a mother from my son’s school took me in for free, welcomed me in her family home for over a month, not even accepting rent. Their generosity humbled me.
What is my dream now? I already live in my dream.
I’ve made a life here and found my community. I’ve faced a lot of challenges, but I also found hope for my life. Our lives are here. It’s the place where we have a future. My next milestone is to forget hardship, offer my child the best Bristol has to offer and to be the first in my family to get a PhD. Never stop dreaming…”