In recent months we have been setting up a scheme in which people from Hastings and St Leonards are invited to offer help of various kinds to the Syrian families entering our community through the Syrian Resettlement Project. Rossana Leal, the founder and leader of this scheme, has a vision for how this can work to establish a real culture of welcome and hospitality towards our new fellow-citizens from her own experience many years ago. For she was another refugee child who had to leave her home and find sanctuary in a new place and a new culture thousands of miles away. Here is her Buddy Story.
This year marks 40 years since my family was forced to leave Chile and begin the long journey which would take us through Argentina, London and finally to Scotland. I was 9 years old when we arrived in the UK – my mum and dad, two older brothers and a younger sister, and me.
It was perhaps this event in my life that inspired me to set up a volunteer buddy group which would support newly arriving refugees here in Hastings, where I now live. As I reflect on my own journey, it is clear that at many points in my life there have been kind words, a hand of friendship, even just a friendly knowing smile from a stranger -that have given me and my parents the strength to cope and carry on.
At our journey’s start, we crossed the border from Chile to Argentina by bus, and made our way to Buenos Aires and at some point to a UN-protected hotel in 1976. But instead of finding refuge, we had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Our UN-protected hotel was raided at nights, and the Argentinian people were being terrorized by their own violent coup. In May 1977 we set off from our UN ‘protected’ hotel, and, escorted by United Nations soldiers, we boarded British Caledonian flight to the UK. I still feel an element of fear when I remember the flight – an unspoken fear which was met with the friendly smiles of the air hostesses who made me feel safe at the start of this long journey into the unknown. I carried my doll, a pink teddy and my cows leather handbag. I loved that handbag. I remember we all wore our best clothes to travel. They were our smart clothes.
On arrival in London we were met at the airport by Helen and Gordon, names I will never forget. Helen, a young, blonde,gentle woman, and Gordon a very tall and friendly man. I later found out that they were part of the Joint Working Group, a network of faith, trades unions and local authority services coming together to help Chilean refugees. Gordon and Helen welcomed us with warm smiles and hugs and bundled us into a black taxi, another great adventure. The taxi seemed to drive through the whole of London before arriving at the ‘refugee hotel’ in Holland Park, West London. We were escorted to our room in the basement of the building, one big room with enough beds for us all to sleep comfortably: a double bed and four single children’s beds. This was to be our stopover for one month. In that month, volunteers came in and out of the ‘refugee hotel’ – it was starting to feel safe.
There were many other newly arriving Chilean refugee families in this hotel, all with their own, unimaginable, experiences of the horrors of a fascist dictatorship, loneliness, fear and sadness, loss.
The kindness, the patience and the hand of friendship extended to us by these volunteers enabled the beginning of a healing process for want of a better word…
I spent a lot of time in the children’s play room, playing with the many toys in this room. It felt safe to play again. A volunteer would come and take all the children to the local park, Holland Park. We played in the Adventure Play Ground. I loved this place; I would run around in the wooden structures screaming, shouting, and I was allowed to do so. I also remember going to take part in pottery classes, my frustration and anger at not getting this right, and the patience of the volunteers who told me it was ok, there was no wrong way of doing this, just my way – and that I would find the right way. All of these ‘normal’ activities made me feel safe, as if normal life could resume…
Families were leaving the hotel all the time. I’ve never known what happened to some of the children who had become my friends in this short time. My assumption, is, that like me, they were ‘adopted’ by good people and made new lives in other UK towns. Then it was time for us to leave the hotel.
Before each journey we had made till now, my mum had tried to prepare us in the best way she could. This time, she got us all into our basement room and told us to start packing, that were travelling to the land where giant men wear skirts. She hugged and kissed us and told us everything would be all right. I quickly packed my bag, with my cows leather hand bag, my small pink teddy and a giant brown teddy I had become very attached to from the children’s playroom. I was ready for this new expedition as I imagined Scotland to be this magical place.
We were about to embark on the most memorable journey of my life. On arrival in Fife, Scotland, we were met half way across the Fifth of Forth bridge by a delegation of Scottish Miners. We swapped cars and were driven by the giant men and women, some of whom were indeed wearing skirts, to Cowdenbeath. We arrived at a house, where a delegation of local people waited for us outside. Scottish bagpipers were playing to welcome us, headed by a rosy-cheeked, blond woman, wearing a tartan kilt -like a real life doll – who handed the keys to the house to my mum. My mum opened the door and we entered a house that had been completely furnished and prepared for us by local people. They showed us around and sat us down to eat a warm meal which I later found out had been prepared by a Chilean woman who was part of another Chilean family already living in the area. I now know that this house was 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, the comfortable bed as I fell asleep that night, feeling really safe for the first time in what seemed like a long time.
We were quickly enrolled in local schools and my parents began to learn English in nearby Edinburgh. Our house was always busy with local visitors who came to see us, offer help or just be nosey. The coal sheds were in the front of the gardens and every time we took coal out to light a fire, the coal was very quickly replaced by an anonymous person. Our coal shed was always full.
My new friend Corinne invited me to join the Majorettes and I was soon marching along with the local miners’ galas. We were invited out to picnics and marches, and one day a whole load of us jumped in buses and 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 the music from the stage, some with Swastikas on their T-shirts. The Buddies must have seen our confused faces and told us it was safe, everything was fine and we were safe. It was 1977, the Skids were playing a free gig for Chile, and everything seemed possible…