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How Scotland took in Chile’s refugees

Sonia Leal remembers the warmth and generosity of the mining village that gave her exiled family a home

Chilean exiles began arriving in Scotland shortly after September 11 1973.

Initially they came to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Two main working groups were quickly set up by Scottish people, made up of trade unionists and community groups — the Chile Defence Committee based in Glasgow and the Chile Solidarity Campaign all over Scotland.

Together with the Joint Working Group, a Britain-wide network, they began working closely with local authorities, which allocated between two and three houses or flats for the refugees in Cowdenbeath, Dumbarton, Motherwell, Lochgelly, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Alexandria and other towns and cities around Scotland.

Initially Chilean exiles arrived in London and lived in “exile” hotels but as soon as houses or flats became available they made the journey to their new “adopted” homes.

In this manner up to 500 Chilean exiles, including whole families, arrived in Scotland.

They had suffered unimaginable torture and abuse and as a child of refugees I grew up hearing their stories until they quickly melted their way into my consciousness, forever ingrained into my being.

It was not until I was 26 that I first read my own father’s account. He never spoke about what happened to him but he wore his scars every day.

His hands were calloused by hard work as a welder and all his fingernails were rough as barnacles where they had been torn off. He died too early as his heart was that of an old man’s from the electric torture.

There were no grants or funding available for all this resettling work or the manual hours put in by Scottish people who gave thousands of hours of their voluntary time.

Additional assistance given to the Chilean exiles included English lessons for the parents and assistance in looking for work. People gave furniture and clothes.

Chilean exiles threw themselves into political and cultural life in Scotland and began raising political consciousness of the Chilean struggle within their communities.

Later this raised awareness was extended to other countries in struggle such as El Salvador and Nicaragua through campaigns and cultural events.

They worked closely with many wonderful artists such as Dick Gaughan, 7:84, Wildcat Theatre, Sorley MacLean, Norman McCaig and Hamish Henderson to name but a few.

Where possible they joined the trade unions and quickly became shop stewards. Their fellow Scots’ fight was their own — my father was a member of the T&G until the day he passed away and a shop steward.

The Scottish gave generously and welcomed Chilean folk warmly. A country mocked abroad for its stinginess it was nothing of the kind. The Scots had a history of their own struggles and could identify with ours. It was easy for me to make this country my home.

My family arrived in Cowdenbeath on May 1 1977. I was seven years old.

We rode the bus up from London from the exile hotel in Shepherd’s Bush.

The only thing I knew about Scotland was that it was a land of giants and that the men were so tough they could wear skirts and no-one would say anything about it.

This had been relayed to me by Helen, a young Englishwoman working in the exile hotel.

On our arrival we jumped off the bus, my sister clutching a bear the same size as her donated by the same Helen, and we stood in the cold spring afternoon while a beautiful marching band made up of Cowdenbeath miners warmed up their bagpipes.

I remember standing agape as they all wore kilts. And they were all so huge!

I fell in love with the sound of the bagpipes there and then and to this day they can make me melancholy or combative.

They marched us through the village towards 25 Greenbank Drive. I have lived in many addresses since then but this one trips off my tongue in a millisecond.

We followed silently in a daze, our bags being carried by members of the community.

When we reached the white house with the overgrown garden a beautiful blonde woman took my mother by the elbow and ushered her towards the front door.

She dangled a key in front of her and motioned for her to open it. She had to do this a few times as my mother stood there confused.

Once it dawned on her she smiled and unlocked the front door to what was to be our home for the next year.

The house was so warm. There was a huge coal fire in the front room and the first thing that struck me was that each room had lots of blankets.

Our beds had at least 10 each — the miners wanted to make sure that we would not be cold.

This was the time of package holidays and the miners had been to Spain, as there were tons of little plastic Flamenco dolls on all the windowsills and straw donkeys in the corners of the rooms.

Against the back garden wall was a mountain of coal and the garden had triffid-like plants that I later found out were rhubarb.
I loved this house — the whole village had generously given things to it.

Among the villagers were old miners who had fought in the Spanish civil war. One had had his fingers shot off and another had a metal plate on the left side of his head.

They sang us rebel songs in Spanish and raised their left fists to show that they were with us in solidarity.

We did not have to communicate with sign language for long as I cannot remember not speaking English. We were given our own teacher who used plastic toys to teach us words.

The welcome we had ensured my place in this country.

It made me happy to give back and give back we have. It allowed me to fall in love with the Highlands and the west Hebrides and build my home here.

As co-ordinator of the Chile:40 Years On Scotland branch one of my aims is not only to highlight and acknowledge the amazing work the Scottish people did then but to also give thanks to them.

We have brought together companeros new and old and produced an amazing programme of events which I hope you can all enjoy.

Chile: 40 Years On Scotland branch have arranged a series of events commemorating the coup 40 years ago. Join MSPs and campaigners at the Scottish Parliament at lunchtime today.

Other events include A Night For Neruda on Friday September 13 7pm at Edinburgh City Chambers Members Lounge, an STUC event from noon on Saturday September 14 at the Scottish Trades Union Congress, 333 Woodlands Road, Glasgow G3 6NG and much, much more.

For further details go to


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