On 13th June the “open” project at Open on St.Leonards sea-front
was launched with its first exhibition of photographs
by Andrew Grainger.

This venue is to be run by the 20 refugee families who have so far arrived in Hastings as part of the Syrian Resettlement programme, But it is intended to be a place of integration for the whole community through events and exhibitions. At the opening, the venue was packed with barely room to raise a pastry to a mouth. Welcoming speeches, translated into Arabic, were given by Rossana Leal, founder of the Hastings and Rother Buddy Project, by Felicity Laurence, chair of Hastings Community of Sanctuary and by Hastings Mayor, Nigel Sindon. Fatima, the young ambassador for Hastings Refugees, spoke in public for the first time:

Fatima Esayli speaking at Open launch 13th June
PICTURE: Richard Platt

“I came from Lebanon to the UK with my wonderful family and we’ve been in Hastings for seven months. Actually, since I came here, everything has changed. In the UK, and especially in Hastings, I have found great human kindness and deep respect. My family and I now live with a sense of safety and security. I’m sorry to say that, before we came here, we were around people who acted without humanity. They were humans but had no humanity.

When I came to Hastings, my family and I were introduced to four Buddies from the organisation which is opening this cafe, the Hastings and Rother Refugee project. These four are always ready to help us in any way possible. They visited us and now they are no longer guests in our home, but part of our family.

They have listened to my hopes and ambitions for my life. They’ve taken me through the process of applying to universities, including accompanying me to Open Days and interviews. In the Lebanon my course in Interior Design and Architecture was interrupted. I’m happy that I have now been offered places at Brighton and Middlesex to continue my degree.

I am very surprised to find that all this help is done on a voluntary basis. 

If you want to be part of this amazing project of kindness, then I invite you to join us now.”

Rossana Leal arrived in Britain in 1977 at the age of seven with her parents as refugees from General Pinochet’s Chile. Her father obtained leave to enter from a camp in Argentina, and was able to work and study immediately on arrival. 

“I learnt from my own family experience how important it is for refugees to become fully integrated members of the local community by working. We were sent on our arrival to live amongst a mining community in Fife, Scotland. My dad had immediately usable skills as a welder, but Scottish miners understood that he would need formal qualifications here and supported him in getting them.

“Syrians arriving now for resettlement have immediate rights to work and study in Britain. But in my view all asylum seekers should be allowed to work from day one: it’s a human right. A job makes people feel useful, it’s a vital part of life. We should run a system with programmes that looks at their aspirations and helps them to achieve them. But at least those who don’t have these rights yet can volunteer here on the Buddy project – that’s a start.”

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