- Report by Alex Kempton and Felicity Laurence, Hastings Community of Sanctuary
- Photographs by Andrew Grainger
When Rossana Leal received her Woman of the Year award on the South Bank at the weekend a large group of her supporters from Hastings cheered rapturously and made their presence very evident!
Rossana received her award at the Women of the World Festival on Saturday. Hundreds gathered to witness the awards made to four outstanding women, including The Guardian writer Amelia Gentleman for her reporting of the Windrush tragedy.
Former Chilean refugee Rossana was recognised with the award given by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and Migrants Organise. It was made in recognition of her pioneering work with the Hastings and Rother Refugee Buddy Project which brings together a community of more than 100 East Sussex locals with refugees newly arrived in the country. Together they share meals, visit local sites and festivals, run sewing groups, driving lessons and children’s activities.
And members of her buddy ‘team’, of Hastings Women’s Voices and a large contingent of the Syrian families who have now made Hastings their new home were among those there to witness the presentation, made to Rossana by Vanessa Redgrave.
In making the award Ms Redgrave saluted the courage of the Chilean families who tried to resist the murderous coup in 1973, Rossana’s among them. She explained that Rossana, “remembered the welcome that Chileans had received and she wanted to do the same… So she started mobilising, she found people to welcome and made friends with the Syrian refugees resettled in Hastings.”
Accepting her award, Rossana spoke powerfully about her inspiration for the Buddy project – a coming together of her memories of her own experience of kindness and support when she arrived in a mining village in Scotland as a child refugee with her family, her increasing upset at the images and stories of people escaping conflict – as she once had done – now drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and doors to safety increasingly being closed. The final element was the presence in her own town of the former Home Secretary, responsible for the Hostile Environment that she sees as having been ‘so destructive of so many lives’.
With the Refugee Buddy Project, Rossana is enacting her vision of pushing back and transforming this ‘hostile environment’.
A short film was shown of Rossana at work in Hastings making an environment that is safe and truly welcoming. In the film Rosanna talks about her escape from Chile and her arrival in the UK. She says winning the award has ‘revived’ her and that her, she says of her work: “The aim is simple, the aim is friendship.”
When each award recipient was asked for a last comment to leave in people’s memories Rossana said: “When future generations see what was happening in the UK at this time, they will ask did you resist or did you collaborate?”
The ceremony closed with Ms Redgrave and Rossana dancing together to the singing of the Choir of the World!
In Rossana’s own words
- Read more about Rosanna