Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Former refugee from Chile offers hand of friendship to Syrians who fled war


Former refugee from Chile offers hand of friendship to Syrians who fled war

7 March 2019

Like many Brits nearing retirement, Rossana Leal dreamt of a quiet life by the sea, with time to relax and take up the embroidery she was too busy for in London.

But her move to the coastal town of Hastings coincided with news of refugees making dangerous journeys to Europe and children drowning in the Mediterranean. Others might have switched off. For Rosanna, things were different. The news triggered memories of her own flight as a child from Chile during the dictatorship, via Argentina to Britain and of the welcome she received from a mining community of Cowdenbeath in Scotland in 1976.

Refugees from Chile arrive at Cointrin Airport, Geneva to be resettled in Switzerland.

She couldn’t just turn her back and so she put her retirement plans on hold.

“I was welcomed by the Scottish miners – that is one of the most beautiful experiences I have had of being in this country,” she says in her bright apartment by the sea.

Her vision was to rally her community to help Syrian refugees arriving in Hastings through UNHCR’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Things started small for her Buddy Project in 2017 - just a borrowed back room of a seafront shop. Many refugees are weighed down by paperwork and bureaucracy even as they struggle to find their feet in a new country.

“I want to be able to offer something for the refugees where they feel human, away from all that kind of thing,” she says. Today there are more than 100 buddies and they share Sunday roasts, visit local sites and festivals, run sewing groups, driving lessons and children’s activities for the refugees.

“My Mum said something I’ll never forget – ‘We’re going to the land where giant men wear skirts!’ … I was so excited.”

‘When the family first arrives (they are stressed) … and then you see them two weeks later and they’re smiling and they’re trying to communicate …. The families, I think, feel part of something.”

Rossana remembers Chile’s military coup in 1973 when she was five years old. In the turmoil that followed, her father was detained and for six months the family did not know where he was or if he was alive. Then he reappeared.

“I remember looking out of a window, probably to see if he was coming home,” she says. “And my brother shouting ‘that’s Dad!’ And I didn’t recognise him. He was thin and he had lots of hair.” He had been tortured. Even after his release, he was taken away repeatedly during night raids, she says.

Refugees leaving Santiago on a special flight to Canada. Taking with them as much as they can.

The family finally decided Chile was too dangerous. Her father fled first. Her mother waited for her last pay packet, bought the three children new clothes and bus tickets to Argentina and told them they were going on holiday.

They left just in time, but things in Argentina were no better because that country was facing its own turmoil.

“People were being dragged off the street screaming by secret police,” she says. Her parents lost hope of returning to Chile and visited UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The family was selected for resettlement to Britain. They arrived in London but found out they were being moved to Scotland.

“My Mum said something I’ll never forget – ‘We’re going to the land where giant men wear skirts!’ … I was so excited.”

Rosanna’s face lights up at her memory of the welcome the family received in the village of Cowdenbeath by the Scottish Union of Miners.

“The Scottish pipes were out, the band was out,” she says. Their new house had been cleaned and kitted out with toys for the children and there was a ceremony to give them the keys.

“That first night in that house was the first time I felt really safe. I remember how clean the sheets were. They smelt so nice,” she says.

In the months that followed, Rossana joined the majorettes and neighbours took them to parties, galas and concerts. They even saw punks for the first time. The first winter was amazing.

"That first night in that house was the first time I felt really safe."

“Every time we took the coal out to the shed, someone would fill it. We don’t know who ….

Whoever did it didn’t want us to know and just made sure we were warm that winter.”

The welcome changed Rossana’s life and it also helped her parents overcome the trauma they felt over losing their lives in Chile. In time, she gained citizenship, studied and began working.

Rossana has big plans for her Buddy Project. She hopes to attract funding and inspire other towns in East Sussex. But as she works, she keeps in mind that the project didn’t have its origins in Hastings. It really started in a small Scottish village many years earlier.

“Amazing things happened for us. My parents thought ‘who are these people, why are they doing this?’ But I guess that international solidarity was behind it. Empathy and solidarity. Just by being with somebody and showing your presence, I learned, you are actually giving so much.”