Helen's story

I started my career aged 18, working in a hospital as a nursing assistant in my home country of Sweden. Shortly after, in 1978, I came to London to work as an au pair. It was here that I met my husband and started to raise my three children.

In 1987, I left my husband. I spent a night in a home for people fleeing domestic abuse. It wasn’t called a refuge back then; it was just a room with bunk beds. It was run by one couple; they didn’t have support workers in the way we do now. The next day, I went back to Sweden.

During this time, I didn’t have any A-levels. I decided to head back to school, and after graduating, I got a job working in an office, supporting refugees. I did that for ten years, alongside a degree in psychology. In Sweden, you don’t have to pay for university. You can borrow money to live off, and during the Christmas and summer holidays, I went back to my work with refugees.

One day, I was asked to work late, while the police tried to find and interpreter for a refugee that they were going to refer to us. When I realised they were looking for an English interpreter, I said that I would do it. That’s how I slipped into becoming an interpreter too.

Once I finished my degree, I became a social worker, and offered to start lecturing at my university. I worked part time at university and had another job as a psychologist in a research project. It was there that I worked on a psychology research project, looking at support for older people.

I’ve always been attracted to psychology and human behaviour.

Over the years, I’ve worked with so many people who have been traumatised and exhibited what some deem as aggressive behaviour as a result. I don’t see it as aggressive. After experiencing domestic abuse, I was aware that people looking from the outside in would think that I acted strangely at the time. I understand why some people behave in odd ways, and I’m interested in exploring where that comes from.

I came back to England from Sweden in 2006, working initially in mental health. In 2008, I applied for a job as a refuge worker with Hestia in Ealing. I didn’t know charities could run refuges. In Sweden, it was all provided by social services. I applied for the role because of my own experience, and I wanted to help others.

Since then, I’ve worked with a few other organisations, but always come back to Hestia. I remember my area manager in my very first role with Hestia saying to me: “you’ve got a lot of potential”. I’m now a team manager for a domestic abuse service, still in Ealing. However, I always make sure that I spend time chatting to the women we support, asking how their lives were and getting to know them. I never wanted to just be known as ‘the manager’. Everyone we support comes from a different walk of life.

Everyone’s experience of domestic abuse is different.

I’m 63 now, and I’ve been working with people in crisis for 45 years. From holding a woman’s hand as she died in hospital when I was just 18, to hearing from refugees about the extreme torture they’ve faced, I’ve had to learn coping methods along the way. You have to learn to cope with what you’re hearing, but not be numb to it. You can’t lose compassion. Compassion is integral.

When I was supporting refugees, someone gave me this piece of advice: when you’re at work, pretend you’re wearing a lab coat with big pockets. Put everything you hear in those pockets, and when you go home leave it in the office, hang it on the office door. Otherwise, you’ll burn out.

As a team leader, I try and pass on some of my coping methods to my staff. I encourage them to talk openly. I know to eat well and exercise: back in Sweden, I was a judo instructor for children. I don’t do judo anymore but still go on very long walks. I’m also keen on being creative. Knitting, crocheting and upholstery are very calming, and they give you satisfaction because you’re creating something for others to appreciate.

I’m retiring in a few years. I’d like to expand on my knitting business open a knitting business then. I’m looking forward to focusing on my own creative endeavours but I’m also thinking about volunteering, hosting creative workshops in Hestia’s refuges. Working with people, you never feel stagnant. That’s the pull of this role. Every day is an opportunity to learn.