Refugee Week 2020

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There is more and more research and evidence that gardening, and food growing is beneficial for physical and mental well-being especially for those who have suffered torture, human rights abuses and been forced to flee their homes leaving behind everything that matters to them: their family, friends, language, culture.

Refugees and asylum seekers have come to this country due to instability and crisis in their home country, having to escape from dangerous life-threatening situations such as poverty, starvation, war, famine, repressive regimes and threats to human rights. Many, not all but many, may have had experience of food growing as a basic fact of life to support their family’s livelihood.

With many refugees saying that in their home countries they were used to growing their own food and were more connected to nature and green space, dense urban London, and Islington with the smallest amount of green spaces available per head of the population, presents many challenges for people to be able to rediscover their connection with and access to growing food and nature.

Arriving and settling in a new land is challenging at the best of times but when you have lost everything and are experiencing intense psychological trauma it is so much harder, frightening and challenging. Finding support and discovering ways to rebuild your life in exile is an essential lifeline for survival.

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Participating in gardening and food growing can support refugees through connection to what they know, enabling them to make use of their skills and expertise, to share these skills or learn new ones. This can boost confidence and self-esteem, helping them to settle into (and take control) in a new and unfamiliar environment.  Being in a safe tranquil natural green space can be calming, helping to sooth frayed nerves. Socialising and engaging with others can offer a much-needed opportunity to develop English language skills as well as being able to talk to people in your own mother tongue.

Gardening can play an important role in aiding the recovery from trauma.

Islington has a wonderful and rich diverse population with many varied BAME communities adding to the skills and knowledge held within our communities; Islington charities have a long history in supporting  and responding to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, working together to ensure that those who have experienced forced flight have places where they can feel safe and secure.

Room to Heal, is a unique and very special charity based in Islington, where they run a unique programme of person-centred, community-based holistic support and gardening at Mildmay Community Centre (an Octopus Network member).

Room to Heal is one such potent example of using gardening to help people heal; transforming a run-down space in the Community Centre into a thriving natural garden where refugees can grow food, socialise together and talk about what they need.

Room to Heal grew out of conversations between its founder, Mark Fish, and five refugees who went on to become the original members back in 2007. They told him: “‘Mark, we’re from a rural background, we’d like a green space where we can grow our food and sit together in a natural environment and talk about things we need to talk about,’” Since then Room to Heal has grown to include over a 100 members from across 30 countries.  Room to Heal is a small grass roots charity and it relies on donations, supporters and volunteers to achieve its goals. Head on over to their website to discover more and find ways you can help.

Another amazing example of an organisation which was founded to use gardening and growing to support and improve the well-being of refugees and asylum seekers, is The Comfrey Project, an innovative charity in Gateshead.

The project was founded in 2001 as a pilot project, offering one session a week on an allotment site for 6 participants. The aim was to provide a safe welcoming environment which promotes personal well-being through a sense of place and belonging.  Over the years the Project has gradually expanded, developing across 3 sites so that by 2016 they had 21,000 sq ft of land under cultivation, a testament to the hard work of the trustees and staff but most importantly to the refugees and asylum seekers who have created  and shared beautiful thriving productive green spaces.

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In 2007, the work of The Comfrey Project was recognised in Gordan Brown’s book Britain’s Everyday Heroes, definitely worth a read! In 2008 the Comfrey Project was named as Guardian Charity of the Year, so from small beginning, remaining true to their founding principles, they have grown to be able to offer one of the essential lifelines that supports people to take the steps on a journey to rediscovering confidence, self-esteem and purpose.  Check out some photos of their activities.

Islington Council has a long history of facilitating community gardening and food growing with their residents. There is a strong culture of volunteer / community-led groups creating and offering access to gardening and food growing; in groups and individually, in parks, on estates, on roadside verges, on rooftops, in window boxes, in schools and in community centres and undoubtedly in more places as yet to be discovered! While this is fantastic and Islington has many examples of very special places like the award-winning Culpeper Community Garden – an oasis in the city, we all know that there is more to do.

Making use of all the borough’s greenspaces in creative and inventive ways that offer opportunities, big and small, for gardening and food growing must be encouraged and developed further so that more people, especially those in greatest need, can gain a sense of ‘belonging and trust’ through the actions of and participation in community gardening that can be so important in  enabling people to find positive ways to live well in exile.

We must all do more. We at Octopus know this and are working with the Council, within our Network and with our partners to find ways to increase and improve our Urban Growing Programme.

Working together with our Islington partners and communities we want to 1) facilitate gardening and food growing opportunities that can help people re discover a sense of belonging, can help rebuild trust and most importantly can empower people to take control of their lives again. 2) facilitate more gardening and food growing opportunities that are sustainable, contribute to creating a local food network, are resilient to climate change and responsive to social justice.

Every person in Islington, wherever they have come from, whatever their background, whatever their immigration status, has a right to grow and access fresh healthy food without any stigmatisation and a right to activities and spaces that support their needs.

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So, let’s find ways to get growing together in safe secure welcoming spaces that includes all people, promotes recovery and enables everyone involved to take charge of their lives once again.

Everyone is welcome at our Community Plant Nursery on Tufnell Park Estate.

Just e-mail franie@octopuscommunities.org.uk to arrange a visit!