This is what it’s like to volunteer for the Hastings and Rother refugee buddy project

Volunteers at the Open cafe in St Leonards
Volunteers at the Open cafe in St Leonards

The Hastings and Rother refugee buddy project is a volunteer scheme pairing Syrian refugees who have been resettled in the area with members of the community.

Over the last two years, the project has grown from strength to strength and has played a vital role in helping new families fleeing war feel at home.

See our interview with the founder of the project here.

We spoke to two residents who have become buddies about what it is like to be involved with the project.

‘I think they’ve been really brave’

For Hastings resident Lyndsay Tomlinson, who has been supporting a young family from Syria for about a year and a half, the most rewarding part of being a buddy was watching people flourish.

She visits the family, who have three children aged between five and just a few weeks old, about once every fortnight.

Over the months, she has helped them practice their English, accompanied them on hospital visits and enjoyed days out together, like a picnic by the castle in Bodiam or a group trip to a local orchard – while learning about them and their culture along the way.

Lyndsay, who previously worked at the Excellence Cluster and as a teaching assistant, said: “The children seem very happy and stable at school. The little girl, the English she’s picked up is incredible. The dad has just passed his driving test, which is absolutely amazing.”

She said all the refugees she had met through the buddy scheme had been ‘hardworking people, all very keen to get a job and make their own way in the world’.

Lyndsay said the family were settling into Hastings well.

“It’s just really lovely to see the progress that people are making, their confidence, to see the children making friends,” she said.

“I think they’ve been very brave and courageous in making it their homes.”

‘It feels like family’

Volunteer Antonia Berelson said becoming involved in the buddy project had meant acquiring ‘another family’.

The Hastings district councillor for St Helen’s Ward said she had lost her mother not long before becoming a buddy, something she had in common with the mum of the refugee family she had paired with, which gave them an immediate sense of solidarity.

While she and the parents share food and coffee, their children play together, brought together by ‘the united language of lego’, she said.

“It does feel like family,” she said. “It feels really special and you feel like you care about one another.”

She was first motivated to get involved after meeting an asylum seekers at St Michael’s Hospice where she works as a nurse.

“It really struck me how hard their life was, it really brought it home how difficult it could be,” she said.

When she met Rossanna Leal, the founder of the project, and heard her inspiring story, she decided to become a buddy.

“I was looking to do something,” she said. “It’s so easy to become despondent.

“You know the can’t fix the problems of the world but you can concentrate on your own space, make a difference to one person.”

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