By Gareth Stevens 

Rossana Leal, founder of the Hastings & Rother Refugee Buddy Project has had her innovative community leadership work recognised at the Women of the World Festival in London.

PICTURE: Dave Young

On Sunday 10th March, the day when the whole world was celebrating the achievements of women, one of Hastings’ finest was on the South Bank in London receiving the Woman of the Year Award at the  Festival.

Rossana Leal was given this prestigious award in recognition of her pioneering work and inspirational leadership in setting up the Hastings & Rother Refugee Buddy Project. This initiative encourages people from Hastings, St Leonards and Bexhill to offer help of various kinds to refugee families entering our community through the Syrian Resettlement Project. 

Rosanna with Vanessa Redgrave
PICTURE: Andrew Grainger

The Women on the Move Awards is a unique annual ceremony, organised by Migrants Organise and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to celebrate the vital contributions made by refugee and migrant women to communities across the country.  Their work, often carried out every day without any supporting infrastructure, connects and empowers communities and inspires others to make social change, but is often unseen and the people behind it unsung.

During the awards ceremony a short film was shown of Rossana at work in Hastings. It emphasised the wealth of proactive and creative community activism going on in Hastings and, in particular, celebrated the intense community engagement that was having such a positive impact on the lives of newly arriving refugees. 

Beyond the ceremony itself, the awards scheme hopes to redress an imbalance by emphasising the positive outcomes of migration and shifting the narrative from one about ‘victims’ to one of shared humanity and community. 

Rossana enjoyed much support from her Hastings friends on the night. There were members of her buddy ‘team’, Hastings Women’s Voice, and a large contingent from Syrian refugee families in attendance.

Rosanna at the Award ceremony
PICTURE: Andrew Grainger

Hosted by the BBC’s Samira Ahmed, the award itself was presented by Vanessa Redgrave. Clearly moved by her achievements, Redgrave spoke very highly of Rossana’s fortitude and compassion before sharing a dance with her as the ceremony closed and the Choir of the World sang!

Laura Padoan, a spokesperson for UNHCR, said of Rossana, the other winners and nominees: “The most courageous people I know are refugee women. In spite of everything they’ve been through, they are reaching out to others in need and giving back to the communities that have welcomed them.”

Rossana’s Story
It is perhaps no surprise that Rosanna has herself experienced first hand the fear and trauma of being a refugee. Her family were forced to flee their home country of Chile because of the threat of state persecution following Pinochet’s violent coup that overthrew the socialist government led by Salvador Allende in 1973. 

She still remembers the names of the two people that met her family at the airport in London in 1977: Helen and Gordon. They were part of the Joint Working Group, a network of faith groups, trades unions and local authority services who came together to help Chilean refugees. Rosanna says that as a direct result of their warm welcome, unflinching commitment and the way they organised a secure place for her family to stay during those first few days after their arrival, she finally began to feel safe.

Subsequently welcomed into a small mining community in Fife, Scotland, Rossana talks fondly of her adopted home country and the welcome she was given by a community bound by its mining industry and trade unions. Whilst she accepts that Scotland is not where her family roots are, she has always maintained that she is as much Scottish as she is Chilean and that ultimately home is always the place where you feel safe.

After graduating with a masters in Health Education and Promotion, Rossana worked with a number of migrant organisations, resettlement programmes and in a range of different community project management roles. Her priority in moving to Hastings was to slow things down, to rest and to take a break from social activism, but she found that she could not stand by as “life got worse and worse every day for refugees in the UK”. She told me that her vast experience in aligning the work of locally grown community groups with that of local authorities was going to waste at a time of great need, and that she felt compelled to do something to combat the Home Office’s hostile environment policy.

The Buddy Project
The Hastings & Rother Refugee Buddy Project was set up in 2017. Currently supporting 20 families, the scheme is taking shape and growing every day. Volunteers support arriving Syrian families in any way they need to help them settle into Hastings and the surrounding area. Together, Buddies and refugees share meals, visit local sites and festivals, run sewing groups, have driving lessons and organise children’s activities. The founding mission of the scheme was to establish a real culture of welcome and hospitality for new fellow-citizens from Syria in Hastings. By doing this, the Buddy Project is making a local stand in opposition to austerity and government policy towards migrants and refugees.

The Buddy Project works closely with the Hastings Borough Council case officer team for the Syrian Resettlement Programme, who are responsible for all education, health, housing, financial and other official assistance to the families.  It also works in liaison with Hastings Community of Sanctuary.

This award is a great accolade for Rossana, the buddy volunteers and for the town of Hastings itself. Rossana has shown us how one person’s vision and commitment to improving the lives of others can have a measurable impact at a time of real need and when those responsible for social justice have abdicated their duty.

Towards the end of the WOW festival awards ceremony Rossana was asked for a final word and poignantly said: “When future generations see what was happening in the UK at this time, they will ask: ‘Did you resist or did you collaborate?’”  

• For more information about the Hastings & Rother Refugee Buddy Project and to see how you can support our work, please visit the Hastings Community of Sanctuary website:

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