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Building walls to break down barriers in Yorkshire


Building walls to break down barriers in Yorkshire

Working on ancient walls in the British countryside helps asylum-seekers rebuild their own lives, bringing together locals and new arrivals
17 September 2018
Iraqi asylum seekers Najad(left) and Binar(right) volunteering at Yorkshire's Ingleborough Nature Reserve

SETTLE, ENGLAND – It’s a picture-postcard scene: a cloudless sky, the sun is shining, cows dot the hillside, and ewes graze lazily, cautiously watching their fast-growing lambs explore. Crisscrossing the landscape and knitting this northern county together lies an emblematic feature of the Yorkshire Dales: dry-stone walls.

These walls have stood for centuries, but many badly need maintenance. And in this patch of the Dales, on the slopes of Ingleborough Mountain, a volunteer group of asylum-seekers is doing just that.

They are from the nearby Lancashire town of Darwen. There, councilor and campaigner John East helps run Darwen Asylum & Refugee Enterprise (DARE), an initiative offering support and volunteering opportunities to hundreds of asylum-seekers in the area. DARE is just one of many such organisations doing what they can on meagre resources to help those forced to flee feel at home in Britain.

“What they were seeking was friendship, a place to be safe, reassurance -- maybe some essentials like food -- and a place to laugh,” East said, as the group learned the basics of wall-building from the local reserve manager, Colin Newlands.

"It's demanding, challenging but fun at the same time," said Colin Newlands, manager of Ingleborough Nature Reserve in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

There are over 50km of walls in the reserve around Ingleborough. With only a few staff and volunteers, every new pair of hands is welcome.

Newlands cites the many benefits of asylum-seekers volunteering in the reserve. “It’s an opportunity for people who’ve never had a go at dry-stone walling to come out and learn a traditional skill. It’s demanding and challenging but fun,” he said. “We get to meet people that we wouldn’t otherwise. And if we can provide them with a day out in the countryside, and they feel better at the end of the day, then we’ve achieved something.”

"We were lucky today as one of the group has experience building dry stone walls in Iran. That's been a real bonus and he has acted as foreman for us today." Newlands and Suan, who had experience building similar walls in Iran.

Shameen, who arrived as an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan in 2014 with two daughters, agreed. “It wasn’t that difficult,” she said of the experience, “because I’m a strong woman. I was born in Afghanistan. Afghan women have to be very strong.”

Shameen, from Afghanistan, is one of the asylum-seekers in the group. "I was nervous when I arrived as it was my first time in this country," she said. "Then I met John and the others at DARE and came to the drop-in. They gave me so much support."

East has organised around a dozen similar expeditions over the years, with DARE helping out in tasks like hay-making and lambing, depending on the season.

To find projects and communities in this remote spot, DARE turned to Judy Rogers of the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust, a charity working to protect this special area.

Judy Rogers has worked at the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust for 13 years, bringing disadvantaged groups out from the inner cities into the countryside and to meet the rural communities.

Rogers runs the Trust’s ‘People and the DALES’ project to enable people from diverse backgrounds to access the countryside, learn about nature and benefit from the Dales. Among those who profit most, are refugees.

“Asylum-seekers get a huge amount from a day in the countryside,” she said. “It’s great for their wellbeing – they get walking and do some volunteering, but above all else it can be good for their mental health. They feel a useful, valued part of their new society.”

East and Rogers also hope the initiative will help build bridges between refugees and rural communities.  

“We organise hosting weekends,” Rogers said, “where mothers with their children come for the weekend and stay with locals. We arrange parties, farm visits or games.”

“It has a hugely positive impact on local people, who say they’ve been moved to tears; their attitudes have been changed by asylum-seekers. What’s even better is that they’ve carried on that new relationship,” she added.

East has been helping to run refugee and asylum-seeker support projects across Blackburn and Darwen since the turn of the century, and even in retirement has no plans to stop any time soon.

As the groups got stuck into the task at hand, East, 69, supervised the work. He began supporting asylum-seekers 20 years ago while secretary at a Darwen church. What began as drop-in sessions evolved into the Asylum and Refugee Community in 2004, a thriving project in Blackburn. He supports DARE in his retirement.

“Over the years it changes you and it changes your perspective on things -- food, education, healthcare -- that you might take for granted,” he said. “Spiritually, I’ve also been able to understand a deeper meaning in my own faith, that it can be something that can be put into action.”

East recounted an experience some years back with Iraqi refugees that particularly moved him. “They immediately started running up the hill towards the top of Ingleborough. I shouted, ‘Where are you going?’ And they said that it was the first time they had been free to run.”