Rossana Leal is the CEO of The Refugee Buddy Project, which matches local families with newly arriving people seeking refuge in and around Hastings. Rother and Wealden, East Sussex.
Rossana and her family sought refuge in the UK from Chile in the late 1970s and were welcomed by the Scottish Union of Miners who kitted out a house for them, made sure there was food in the fridge and coal in the coal shed. Rossana still clearly remembers the smell of the clean sheets, the comfortable bed as she fell asleep that night, feeling safe for the first time in what seemed like a long time.
In 2016 Rossana moved to Hastings, a few months after the then-Prime Minister David Cameron had announced the Syrian Resettlement Scheme which promised to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK. East Sussex had committed to hosting around 140 people, with 100 of those being given homes in Hastings the first of whom began arriving in 2015. It was this resettlement of refugees which led Rossana to set up The Refugee Buddy Project. Reflecting on that time, Rossana said “When I moved to Hastings, I became aware of how badly some refugees from Syria were being treated on their journeys. I wanted to recreate the warm welcome I received so I set up The Refugee Buddy Project. Creating connection and friendship is important when you first arrive. To have people around you who don’t know anything about this but who care, it makes a massive difference.”
My mum was a woman who inspired me. I watched her fight for every little space she had, particularly as a refugee woman. She fought to keep us together and take us to safety
The project began to grow rapidly and by 2019 it was working in the Wealden and Rother areas of East Sussex as well, an expansion which was due to the success of the work in Hastings. In 2020 it achieved charitable status and now supports around over 350 people seeking refuge in East Sussex at various stages of their journey, from brand new arrivals to the area to those who arrived via resettlement who come back to the charity for support in areas such as employment, further and higher education, housing, and navigating the next stages of their journey to citizenship. It also works with refugee and migrant women who need support navigating difficult spaces such as domestic violence, divorce, and homelessness.
‘My mum was a woman who inspired me. I watched her fight for every little space she had, particularly as a refugee woman. She fought to keep us together and take us to safety. She represents the story of so many refugee and migrant women who do the same for their children. She brought me up celebrating International Women’s Day. I want equality for all women, social justice for women and safe space for women to be able to develop to their full potential. We can achieve the things we want for our communities and families.’
The impact of the charity is undeniable, both in the community it supports and the host community. With around 70 regular befriending relationships alongside another 100+ volunteers in the network who assist in all sorts of ad hoc ways from delivering food parcels, sorting clothing donations and accompanying vulnerable people to medical appointments, the culture of welcome which Rossana aimed to set up in 2016 has begun to truly embed itself in the local community, and especially in Hastings. This community welcome is given a physical focal point in the town with The Dove Café – the community space run by The Refugee Buddy Project. The space is not a traditional café – from art exhibitions created by the local refugee community, giving free food and drinks to anyone in the area in need of assistance via a pay-it-forward system for regular customers, hosting pop up dinners for chefs from refugee backgrounds – the space is run as a collective space for the host and hosted communities to come together in a safe and joyous environment.