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The Refugee Buddy Project, March-October 2020

The Refugee Buddy Project: Hastings, Rother & Wealden

Alex Kempton, Operations and Campaigns Manager, The Refugee Buddy Project

When the UK lockdown started in March the Refugee Buddy Project immediately moved our activities online. We are lucky in that our volunteers already used an online space to communicate, but we have been struck by the level of digital poverty and inaccessibility in the communities we support. A lot of our work over the last seven months has been attempting to lessen the impact of an ever increasingly online world on those in our communities who have language, financial and hardware barriers to accessing this newly dominant environment.

One of our most exciting developments has been taking on a new member of staff from the community we support. We have been providing mentoring for her via a highly qualified Buddy and in the last year she has achieved her Level 1 Qualification in Bookkeeping and has been doing the Petty Cash accounting for OPEN, as well as running the Café on a Saturday morning. She is now the Project Finance and Administration Assistant and we are delighted to welcome her to the team!

We have also been providing mentorship and support for three people wanting to go into cakes and pastry businesses. We have been assisting them in achieving their Food Safety Certificates, getting their kitchens cleared by the Council and launched a pilot project in August which saw the successful sale and delivery of pastries over several weeks. We will be building on this over the winter.

The online activities we have provided since March have included:

  • A weekly meet-up for everyone in the Project to come and “check-in” with each other; to offer moral and practical support and to retain the strong sense of community we have worked so hard to build since the Project began.
  • Stitch for Change: Pandemic Patchwork Stories: a project that responded to the current public health crisis by creating an online space for people to come together and find a collective voice. Based on the Arpillera movement in Chile, this project offered a space for people to come together and sew their pandemic patchwork stories. Participants were given a sewing kit, a bag of textiles and embroidery threads. We organised an online closed session for the Buddies and the families and an open session for anyone who wanted to take part. We were also joined by a group of Special Educational Needs students from Hastings.

    Funded with Lottery money, secured before lockdown for events, we decided this Project would be a good use of the money to help people in the Project get through the lockdown in lieu of in-person events. The project was facilitated by two textile practitioners who developed an organic approach to each workshop. The workshops responded to the group and the individual needs of the participants. We were joined by one of the leading lights of the Arpillera movement who shared her online Arpillera exhibition with us in a beautifully interactive workshop where participants were asked to choose a favourite Arpillera from the exhibition and share their thoughts on why, with the rest of the group. This raised many memories of home, of missing relatives and family events such as weddings and birthdays of loved ones. It also highlighted the connections between different cultures experiencing migration and seeking refuge.

    The project received 95 squares which are currently being sewn together into 2 and half Arpillera/Quilts.

    These will now be shown at the De La Warr at the end of November/ beginning of December.


  • Kurdish Song: This project has been led by one of our Kurdish friends, and facilitated by a practitioner for Barefoot Opera. The aim is to create an online (Zoom) patchwork of people singing. It has involved coordination from the café manager and IT/technical support from a very skilled media expert who is a Buddy. A core group of Buddies spent time learning the song, Hoi Hergiz, a traditional Kurdish song. It was then decided to open up the invitation to sing with us, to our friends and all the Buddies. People are being asked to record themselves singing, send the videos for our technically experienced buddy who will put the piece together. This project is ongoing until we receive all the recordings.

  • Refugee Week: This was all about having an online presence and offering a “welcome to refugees” narrative. We invited the families to get involved and shared recipes and online art exhibitions.

    Our online Refugee Week was a real success, both in term of online presence as well as in the engagement of the families and the Buddies.


  • #RefugeesWelcome Campaign: Illustrated by local animator Sarah Gomes-Harris, we devised a series of images for social media to highlight the common misconceptions around people seeking refuge. These are shared every Thursday across our social media platforms and people are invited to share them on their own social media.


  • Online ESOL Summer School for Children: An online ESOL summer school was set up and coordinated by the Buddies to help prepare the children for going back to school. Buddies were invited to engage with the children for 20 mins every day to carry out English language activities. The summer school came to an end as the children went back to school. The Buddies and the families have clearly enjoyed the language and writing tools shared during this time. 

    It is worth noting that the Project is not set up to work with children or to offer formal ESOL, but we have taken this on over the summer at the urgent request of those we support. We will be actively campaigning to ensure that the ongoing COVID situation does not lead to children of the communities we support being forgotten about in terms of their access to English provision.

  • Support for people in Hastings Dispersal Area: during lockdown we were in contact with four people with the ‘dispersal area’ system. Several of them were given funds for food, clothes, telephone data and activities for the children. We have secured a small amount of funding to continue this financial support on a case by case basis, which we are very grateful for.

Looking Forward:

Weekend of Action: A Community stands against the Hostile Environment: We are joining in the National Weekend of Action called by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement. Taking place on the 10th and 11th October, the date commemorates the tenth anniversary of the death of Jimmy Mubenga, killed by G4S deportation guards onboard a charter flight forcibly removing him from the country.  Like Joy Gardner 27 years ago, and the 39 Vietnamese migrants found in a lorry in Essex last year, Jimmy was killed by the state racism of Britain’s immigration policies. These deaths are representative of the brutality of the system, and the names of those killed synonymous with the experience of thousands denied justice and dignity. Those kept in detention, deported, drowned at sea, denied healthcare or whose lives were destroyed by the Home Office’s callous disregard for human life – all those whose name will never be publicly known – share this common experience.

In Hastings we will be dropping banners along the seafront on Saturday 10th which will be filmed and then shared on social media the following day, when we will be asking people to write to and tweet their local MP to call for (1) the removal of obstacles to safe passage into the UK and (2) the expansion and extension of government resettlement schemes.



Winter Activities Programme: We are devising a programme of activities across the winter for all involved in our Project to maintain the connections and community and to reduce isolation in these difficult times.

Support for people in Hastings Dispersal Area: We will continue supporting those seeking asylum in our community both through connections and friendship, and through material assistance where possible. We are grateful to the Refugee Action and the Respond and Adapt fund for allowing us to continue this vital element of our work.

Refugee Leadership Programme: We are currently bidding for some funding to develop a project which will focus on supporting and mentoring those we support to become community organisers and leaders.

Charitable Status: We have achieved Charitable Status! This is a great achievement and the product of lots of hard work from our new Trustees and a Buddy who gave lots of their time to support us on this journey. We will use this opportunity to reposition the Project and apply for more sustainable funding.

Education Research: we are currently conducting some research into the issues faced by our newly arrived communities in accessing education and educational settings. We hope to be able to present this before the end of the year.