Viv Taylor-Gee, Buddy Coordinator for the Bexhill branch of the Hastings & Rother Refugee Buddy Project

The Albatross Club in Bexhill was an unexpected venue for the first induction for Bexhill Buddies. Almost on the prom, it is the home of the very friendly RAF Association, with bingo on the go, and lots of pictures of planes and reunions on the walls. Would we be able to take off?

Fifteen of us gathered round the table in a cosy room, more chairs were fetched plus drinks from the bar, and suddenly we were a group. We were ex-teachers, therapists, social workers, business people, a magistrate, a midwife, a café owner  –  we had had all sorts of jobs and been to all sorts of places. Names I had emailed and heard from, people who knew no-one and some people in couples. All “cleared” and interested. Rossana outlined her vision of the scheme: how great it would be if in the future neighbours would automatically all welcome refugees. We were just a step towards that.

She asked everyone in a tour de table, why they wanted to be a buddy. We all looked different but it turned out we were very much of a like mind – horrified by the atrocities in Syria, wanting to offer a welcome here in the UK for those who have had to live through it with their children. Two of the buddies had had similar experiences, or their parents had, and it was carved on their memories. We also heard from Yeser who is now a Cardiac Physiologist at the Conquest Hospital in Hastings. She had been a refugee and arrived here aged eight. She recalled clearly her roller coaster of emotions as she arrived and settled in. On a more practical note, it was reassuring to know that some of us had not just empathy but also skills!

Florence our caseworker explained about the Syrian Resettlement Programme and her vital and time-consuming role with and for the families including liaison over accommodation, benefits, banks, health, schools, bureaucracy and personal problems. Our role is the fun stuff, re-discovering Bexhill with them, sharing and exchanging food and hopefully, laughter.

Everyone had some questions, we learnt a lot. I hadn’t realised that Rother has committed to taking 40 refugees. So far Bexhill has three families, but the overall scheme in Hastings and Rother will have 23 families by the end of March. Refugees can only come to the UK when they have accommodation waiting for them, and they are stranded until we can find some. Not social housing, but private lets. The right sort is in very SHORT supply so if we know anyone with property, ask them if they can help. The rent is guaranteed by the council for a year.

I didn’t know we have a Community Support Officer who meets all the families, and to whom any hate crimes should be reported. I didn’t know that the refugees have the RIGHT to direct access to a Doctor, and therefore an interpreter at the hospital. Lots of nitty gritty questions and straight answers.

The next step is for the buddies to discover the joys of Loomio (our secure, online forum where we tell all of our non-personal and confidential buddying tales, and can communicate both with other buddies and with Project staff and Council Caseworkers) and to organise a DBS session. Everyone will think about what role would be right for them. The scheme’s office will be moving to exciting new premises in March.

I came away thinking about the ethos of the buddy scheme, which Rossana had talked about: respect and welcome.  It apples not only to the refugees but also to the volunteers.

For more information about the Project and how to sign up to be a Buddy please go to the Project page.