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This photo was taken days after we arrived at the 'refugee' hotel in London. We went out to the London zoo. When we left the zoo we were grabbed by two 'cockney geezers' who put the monkeys on our shoulders, took a couple of pics and demanded £20 which my mum and dad handed over and the address of the hotel. The men told us they would get the pics to us. When we got back to the hotel, the volunteers thought we had been mugged when we told the what had happened and no one expected to ever see see the pics. A couple of months later, the pics did arrive. And we now have a memory of what we looked like when we arrive in the UK. Both me and my sister are strutting out Cow's Leather handbags...

This photo was taken days after we arrived at the ‘refugee’ hotel in London. We visited London zoo. When we left the zoo we were grabbed by two ‘cockney geezers’ who put the monkeys on our shoulders, took a couple of pics and demanded £20 which my mum and dad handed over with the address of the hotel. The men told us they would get the pics to us. When we got back to the hotel, the volunteers thought we had been mugged and no one expected to ever see the pics. A couple of months later, the photos arrived, so we have a memory of what we looked like when we first came to the UK. Both me and my sister are strutting our cow-hide handbags.

The Hastings Refugee Buddy Project

00RossanaA refugee who arrived in the UK in the 1970s has recently founded a Buddy project for the Syrian families arriving in Hastings through the Government’s Syrian Resettlement Project (SRP). A team of Buddies is now working closely with the council SRP caseworker. Rossana Leal’s inspiration comes from her own experience as a refugee child and she tells us about why it is a project so close to her heart.

00ChileSquare

This is a family photo taken on 18 September 1970. Inscribed on the back are my parents’ ages. Mum 28, dad 35, me 3. Three years later my family’s life would be turned upside down with the military coup against Salvador Allende. The trigger that sent many to their deaths, prison, torture and exile. I love this pic because it was taken at a happy time in our lives. The thought of exile from our country was inconceivable.

In 1976 my family was forced to leave Chile. I was 9 years old when we arrived in the UK; I can see now that it was the kind words offered at many different stages – even just a friendly smile from a stranger – that gave us the strength to cope and carry on.

We escaped by bus to a UN-protected hotel in Buenos Aires. But instead of finding refuge, we had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. The hotel was raided every night, and the Argentinian people were being terrorized by their own violent coup. So in May 1977, escorted by United Nations soldiers, we boarded a flight to the UK. I still feel fear when I remember this, but also recall the air hostesses who calmed me down.
I carried my doll, a pink teddy, and my beloved cow-hide handbag.

In London, we were met at the airport by Helen and Gordon, names I will never forget. They were part of the Joint Working Group, a network of faith groups, trade unions and local authority services coming together to help Chilean refugees. They welcomed us with warm hugs and bundled us into a black taxi, which seemed to drive through the whole of London before arriving at the ‘Refugee Hotel’ in Holland Park. We were escorted to a room with enough beds for us all – even four single beds for us children. There were many other Chilean refugee families there, all with their own experiences of the horrors of a fascist dictatorship, loneliness, fear, and terrible loss. But in the month we stayed there, it started a last to feel a little safe. I could play again, and the kindness of the volunteers looking after us enabled the beginning of a healing process.

Then it was time for us to leave again. My mum hugged and kissed us, and said that we were travelling to the land where giant men wear skirts. I quickly packed my things, and my handbag and teddy. I was ready for our new expedition to this magic place!

We were met half way across the Firth of Forth bridge by a delegation of Scottish miners, the ‘giant’ men and women, some of whom were indeed wearing skirts, who took us to a small mining town, Cowdenbeath. More people waited there, outside a house; Scottish bagpipers were playing, and a rosy-cheeked woman wearing a tartan kilt handed the keys to my mum. She opened the door and there we found a home, completely furnished and ready with a warm meal prepared by a woman from another Chilean family already living nearby.  This house had been kitted out by donations, and volunteers who all gave their time and love to make us welcome. I will never forget the smell of the clean sheets as I fell asleep that night, and feeling really safe for the first time in so very long.

From that point, we were taken into the community in every way. People visited and helped constantly: and every time we took coal form the coal shed, it was immediately replaced – it was just always full!

One day we were taken to Kirkcaldy to see a free gig in a big field. There was loud music, and people in spiked up blue/red/yellow hair were jumping up and down to it, some with Swastikas on their T-shirts.  Our Buddies must have seen our confusion, and told us it was fine, and we were safe. It was 1977, the Skids were playing a free gig for Chile, and everything seemed possible…

Times have changed significantly since the late 70s when I was so warmly welcomed by these ‘ordinary’ people. The networks that existed when I arrived in the UK no longer exist, and the discourse around those seeking refuge has become increasingly hostile. However, even with all of this against us, there remains a strong willingness to help people in need.

I recently delivered a training session for the Buddy Project. 22 people attended, some new volunteers, others already buddying a newly-arrived refugee family. These Hastings people are challenging the notion that the UK does not care or want to help refugees.  They are providing friendship, and that crucial friendly face to the families who are going to make Hastings their new home.

Would you like to help refugee families
settle into life in Hastings?

We are looking for people who can spare 1–5 hours a week (or more if you like!!!).

The buddy will signpost/accompany/invite/feedback as required to the mentoring coordinators.

  • As a buddy, you might do any of the following activities:
  • Accompany people– to the dentist, doctor etc.
  • Drive people to appointments
  • Help with filling in forms
  • Teach English
  • Repair things
  • Show how to use public transport
  • Visit the family
  • Signpost people to local services
  • Invite people go on social activities such as exhibitions, walks…

To register as a Buddy, please follow this: http://www.escafa.co.uk/volunteer/

I would love to see this project grow, and become a new network – so that every time a refugee family arrives, the whole street goes out to welcome them. If you would like to register to become a buddy here in Hastings, we would love to hear from you.

Posted 18:39 Monday, Feb 26, 2018 In: Hastings People

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