“A force of nature” and “when Rossana wants to help you, you are going to be helped” are just two of the quotes from people whose lives have been touched by Rossana Leal, the founder of the Hastings and Rother Buddy Project, a key initiative for refugees in this Community of Sanctuary.
Growing up in Chile with an active trade unionist father and a teacher mother, who both supported Allende’s democratically elected socialist government, Rossana imbibed her parents’ values and their desire to create a better world.
But following the 1973 military coup led by Pinochet, life became insecure for anyone with her parents’ views. Rossana well remembers the night when the military police came to arrest her father, and how her mother searched tirelessly for him with the children in tow. Thankfully her dad returned, but home never felt safe again. So they fled to Argentina, where life was scarcely less frightening, but from where they were able to apply to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for refugee status.
A year later they ended up in a hotel in West London. She recalls that they were met with enormous kindness by a group comprised of the local Labour Party, various churches, peace organisations and members of Chile Solidarity. Rossana says this moved and delighted them, as they had not realised that the outside world actually cared. It also gave her an enduring faith in the ultimate goodness of human nature, despite recent evidence to the contrary.
Rossana’s family was resettled in Scotland, where they were provided with a fully equipped home and ‘adopted’ by the National Union of Miners – they were also welcomed ceremonially by the local Miners’ Bagpipe Band. Not speaking a word of English, she and her siblings were enrolled in local schools, and her mother and father attended a local college. All settled in quickly, with her father gaining work as a welder in the shipyards and her mother training as a teacher for deaf children, while Rossana embraced the culture by becoming a majorette! This childhood experience of being terrified, then becoming a refugee in a foreign land, and then gradually learning to feel safe once more, is something that she says she will never forget.
While Rossana clearly inherited her campaigning spirit from her parents, she says that it was her first, incredibly positive, encounters with the people and culture of the UK that had a far-reaching influence on her life. “We were the beneficiaries of these acts of solidarity which made us feel welcome,” she explains. “It had a massive impact on us and is a big part of why I wanted to set up this buddy project in Hastings.”
Whatever the family received in the way of friendship and support, Rossana has given back to the many people she has helped throughout her working life, mainly through regeneration and community engagement. This proved excellent training for creating and managing a new refugee project, which launched in 2017 and happened to coincide with the arrival of more Syrian families. “Buddies are there for all the everyday activities with which a family starting a new life in a new country might need help,” she explains.
Rossana exudes warmth and vitality as she recounts the stories of friendships made through help given and returned, and cultural exchanges, all done in a collective ‘can do!’ spirit. From political activism and social media campaigns, through practical help like creating a patchwork quilt reflecting joint community action during the pandemic, this project is never short of ideas.
An exhibition space and café, Open, was launched in 2019 and became popular not only for art, coffee and conversation but also for advice, meetings and workshops. Sadly, the latest COVID restrictions have meant it must close for now, but there are plans to reopen in the future. Buddying has also got more difficult during the pandemic, but Rossana is not one to be defeated. She is currently organising a timetable of one-to-one meetings and, as the pandemic lifts, a series of workshops, training and debates.
The Buddies Project works with other refugee organisations in Hastings, and a weekend in October celebrated the combined work of this Community of Sanctuary with Rossana’s group displaying banners of welcome on beaches from Hastings to Bexhill.
Not surprisingly, Rossana’s achievements have been recognised beyond East Sussex. In 2019 she received the Woman of the Year award from Women on the Move, which afforded her the opportunity to meet other activist women who, like her, entered the UK as migrants or refugees and give so much back to the country that they now call home.
She has many favourite success stories, but loves to tell one about a young Somali girl who arrived in Hastings via Jordan, and was enabled to continue her university studies through the project’s ‘wrap around groups’ which provide life skills like interview practice, and support with exams, CVs or portfolios.
Rossana is also thrilled about a new member of staff who, with the help of a highly qualified buddy, has just achieved a level 1 qualification in bookkeeping and is now employed as the project’s finance and administration assistant.
For the future, Rossana says she wants to take some time to be reflective, as well as to study for a PhD in order to take forward the project that has empowered so many people, refugees and buddies alike. It is a testament to her success that she has attracted enough other ‘forces of nature’ to carry on the work, allowing her to step back and focus on her studies.