50-year-old Helen has been supported by City Hearts since 2015, when she was rescued from modern slavery and referred into a City Hearts safe house through The Salvation Army.
“I was a victim of modern slavery and domestic servitude in London for more than six years. A family asked me to work as a nanny, promising me to help me gain status in the UK. After a couple of years, I realised they had cheated me, they forced me to do lots of different work and didn’t pay me a single penny.”
Domestic servitude is live-in help that is used as cover for the exploitation and control of someone, usually from another country.
“I tried many times to escape, but they threatened me, saying they wouldn’t send my documentation to the Home Office if I left, so I wouldn’t be able to stay in the UK. I didn’t know the immigration rules or system, so I believed them. They even told everyone in the local community I was a bad person, to the point where the local shop wouldn’t even sell food to me.”
Eventually Helen was rescued and brought to a City Hearts safe house for survivors of modern slavery in the North West of England.
“I came to City Hearts with an empty mind and broken life, arriving at the safe house was my first exposure to the outside world in England. Immediately I felt so much warmth, the staff were very welcoming and I felt safe. I was with others who had experienced similar situations and we became friends.
Everyone was very kind, they listened to my story and my sadness. I remember one of my support workers saying to me ‘Helen you are precious’, this made me cry a lot, I felt a lot of sadness but also those words made me realise I am a human being worthy of love. They encouraged me to see past my suffering and hope for the future. In my past, the people who controlled me always put me down, physically abused and told me I was nothing, I had believed them until my caseworker said I was precious.”
“I slowly rebuilt my trust. It was a very emotional experience, it is even now looking back on the memories, sitting in the garden, with caseworkers and support workers helping survivors to understand our situation and the challenges we had experienced in the past.”
As part of their support for survivors of modern slavery, City Hearts run a weekly drop-in service, open to all clients, for shared activities and food.
Helen said “I went to drop-in, we did different activities, there was food, like a picnic. I went there to talk and laugh. Whenever I attended drop-in, I felt normal, I felt I was moving forward. Whilst being supported by City Hearts, I was allowed to make choices, which meant so much as I had my choices taken away before.”
With the help of City Hearts, Helen moved out of the safe house and into her first home, she was signposted to an organisation which helped her sort out her debts and she began volunteering in the local community, doing cooking and other activities.
“After my exploitation, it was a struggle to know who I was, but the caseworkers gave me trust and believed in me, they provided emotional support. I had no family so I told City Hearts everything, they supported me with everything and they listened to me.
The compassion and empathy shown to me, showed their passion and the fact that this was more than just a job. They helped me find my independence. Even now I am still supported through the Integration Support Programme, which provides long-term support for survivors like myself. When I see myself now, I see there is light everywhere around me. I have had the opportunity to share my voice, which took away my shame and guilt and stopped me thinking I was wrong.
City Hearts gave me the confidence to raise my voice, especially Phill Clayton, who invited me to share my story with the Bright Future charities and businesses. I didn’t know I would later get a job through this programme!”
Phill Clayton, Head of Development and Fundraising, said “City Hearts provides immediate crisis and long-term support to men, women and families who are survivors of modern slavery. It is a privilege to support people like Helen, to see them grow in confidence and independence, and find their voice and freedom. Helen’s story reminds us how prevalent modern slavery is, but it is her positivity, resilience and hope which inspires us daily.”
The Bright Future programme was developed with City Hearts and the Co-op in 2017. Bright Future provides modern slavery survivors a fast track into permanent employment with major companies, bringing charities and businesses together.
Through Bright Future, Helen began working as a customer service employee for the Co-op in 2018.
“I’m in my third year working at the co-op, my job gives me a sense of community. Working as a customer team member, my role involves serving people and working on the tills. I am very happy with my job, and especially grateful in these difficult times to be able to work and know people can come for food. It has given me financial and emotional stability. My colleagues are like my family.”
Sharing her goals for the future, Helen said “My goals are to do more to help others and learn more. My personal goal is to raise my voice and awareness of modern slavery to help others. I want anyone who is listening to know where they can go for support. Still, to this day, City Hearts care for me. I hope my story helps people to be more aware of modern slavery, to speak out against injustice and to look out for others in these situations.”
“My advice to other women would be ‘never give up’, never lose your hope. One day you will be in a better place, fight for your identity. For those in a similar situation, don’t be afraid to come forward, don’t be ashamed, you will be in safe hands. Speaking up means your life can change. I felt hopeless, but now I am positive and resilient. Never settle for less than you deserve, we women are the future.
*Name changed to protect identity.