Garden helps refugees put down roots in Britain

Room to Heal's community allotment turns nervous asylum-seekers into budding gardeners, and helps them recover from trauma of forced flight

Now the harvesting season is over, it’s time for experimentation. So on a recent, overcast autumn afternoon, a group of gardeners with a difference chooses another way of growing garlic. They place whole bulbs lightly on the dark soil instead of inserting single cloves.

Elsewhere in the garden, sunflowers stand tall, courgettes are ripe for picking and some straggly tomatoes linger on the vine.

The members of this community garden in Stoke Newington, a pleasant corner of north London, like to try new things. There has been a small crop of peanuts, and callalou, a green leaf vegetable common to West Africa, is flourishing.

The garden, at the Mildmay Community Centre, is about more than horticultural experimentation, or participating in a quintessentially British activity like planting vegetables at an allotment, and chatting about it over a steaming mug of tea. It acts as therapy, to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers.

“I love working with the members and have learnt so much."

The programme is run by Room to Heal, one of many civic groups in Britain welcoming those forced to flee and supporting them at a time of cuts in social services.

“The garden was derelict when we started,” said Martha Orbach, the group’s gardening coordinator, who helped set up the garden, drawing in about 50 members. “I love working with the members and have learnt so much. They have amazing skills -- the different ways to grow things, how to grow okra, peanuts and sugar cane.”

Room to Heal grew out of conversations between its founder, Mark Fish, and five refugees who went on to become the original members 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,’” Fish told UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

Gardening’s benefits for physical and psychological wellbeing, for those who may have suffered torture and human rights abuses, are increasingly recognised by professionals.

Fish, a counsellor and psychotherapist, had worked in conflict resolution in northern Uganda when the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army was terrorising the region. He realised that despite the value of counselling and psychotherapy, substantial healing requires a sense of belonging.

When he returned to Britain, he started working with NGOs -- the Medical Foundation and the Helen Bamber Foundation -- before founding Room to Heal. Fish came across the Culpeper community garden, which was happy to offer a corner for the group. 

Just a short walk from busy Islington, the secluded garden is a riot of colourful ornamental plants, shrubs and trees, and includes a pond. Room to Heal members gather every Friday, rain or shine. Very much a social occasion, there is a big home-cooked meal -- lentils and rice with prawns on one occasion -- and a fire when it’s chilly.

"Coming here is like being at home.”

During a recent gathering, a woman who fled from Kenya in 2001, described how Room to Heal had helped give her a sense of belonging.

“Before, I was scared, I was panicking,” Lucy, who preferred not to use her full name, said. “I had never heard of Room to Heal. But they helped a lot and now I feel like we are a family. Coming here is like being at home.”

Another member, from the Ivory Coast and who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “The group has given me a new family, new brothers and sisters. We share stories, it’s a place where I can speak confidently without fearing that people will judge me.”

Room to Heal has grown to about 100 members from 30 countries, supported by 12 part-time staff and dedicated volunteers. Fish feels that it is about as big as it should be; he doesn’t want members to lose their sense of belonging. Fish has travelled as far as Tunisia and Libya to discuss Room to Heal’s community model with psychologists and academics.

Sarah-Jane Savage, who works in Refugee Status Determination for UNHCR, praised the approach: “Community is so important to rebuilding trust -- this is not something that individual therapy alone can achieve. Room to Heal understands this, and community is a key feature and quite unique” to the group.

Alongside Friday’s social gatherings, there are weekly therapeutic support sessions on Tuesdays at Mildmay, which also houses Room to Heal’s offices. Here, staff help members deal with the problems affecting asylum-seekers and refugees, like finding lawyers to file asylum claims and dealing with the labyrinthine benefits systems. This support is crucial in helping refugees feel that they belong in Britain, and helps set them on a path to giving something back to their new community.

Room to Heal sees being in nature as a healing activity in itself, and working together to develop the community garden gives members a sense of purpose and achievement -- while also providing a tasty harvest they all can share. 

Mary Raphaely, a psychotherapist at Room to Heal, said gardening is a “very visceral thing, not intellectual, and people connect very strongly with that. There’s lots of symbolic value in putting roots down, watching things grow and harvesting them ... It’s a way of rebuilding trust.”

For another member, from Cameroon, planting and harvesting peanuts triggers memories of happier days. “Harvest was a joyful time,” he said. “Now when I plant a bulb, it’s a way to give life again. When I pray that it will grow, I wish for life -- not just for the plant, but for me.”