Creating Gardens With Refugees

creating-gardens
Spreading the all-important netting over the beds.

A regular part of our work at Good Life Permaculture is based around community development and social permaculture principles. We’ve found that when you work with people to improve knowledge, skill, health and wellbeing, other problems are also solved or lessened; and this can ripple into the community and the world beyond. You get the idea: from little things, big things grow.

Live and Learn is an adult education program initiated by Sustainable Living Tasmania (SLT), which focuses on providing practical skills in living sustainably, to decrease the cost of living and increase the quality of life. The course usually runs over six weeks, covering a different topic each week including: gardening; transport; water; waste; health and wellbeing; and building and energy.

In early 2014, SLT partnered with The Phoenix Centre (part of the Migrant Resource Centre) to offer a tailored Live and Learn program to some in the local refugee community. The course was based on producing food in a cold climate – refugees from hot countries were baffled by the Tasmanian weather. Good Life Permaculture was engaged to deliver the program, which we loved doing. Here are some of our reflections about why we support ‘social permaculture’ projects.

We designed the project so that we didn’t have any time inside lecturing people. We spent all of the time outside, learning through doing–which is by far the more effective approach when working with people for whom English is a second, third or, in one case, tenth language. We used our time together to visit established food gardens and build vegetable patches in refugees’ gardens. This provided people with the inspiration and insight into what’s possible.

creating-gardens
Hannah with the very fantastic gardening crew who implemented the garden on the day.

We were not trying to do a full-blown permaculture design; we focused on food production and an understanding of the basics for cool temperate gardening. A grant-based program, with limited time and resources, forces a focus on what’s important. We talk about things like sun, access and water, but keep it simple.

First we recruited different refugee households, visited their garden spaces to see what was possible, and confirmed it was all okay with their landlords. We then did a simple design – sometimes on the back of an envelope – to rough out the approach and estimate materials.

Next, we organised people to come along on the day to help implement the garden design, similar to a Permablitz. We always had a diverse range of people, cultures and ages turn up, which made for a good day.

As you can imagine, language was a significant barrier. We worked with families from Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, Afghanistan and Sudan. While we had interpreters present, there was still an undercurrent of chaos and hilarity as we fumbled our way through communicating. This forced us to really think about what’s important to talk about, and also encouraged other ways of communicating, such as sharing a smile when digging a hole or eating oranges together. I liked those moments.

I also liked the types of conversation that arose when participants did share the same language. Soccer is very popular among the younger people; while cooking and home (their respective countries) were the hot topics among the older people. Every now and then I’d have a quiet chat with one of the participants. One in particular sticks in my head, when a fellow shared some of his thoughts with me about gardening: ‘You know, I’ve had a lot of bad times, a lot of trauma in my life. Gardening is one of the things which has helped me to feel better.’ This short, casual conversation gave me a quick glimpse into a hard life and how the little things can help heal deep wounds that, while we can’t see them, are definitely there.

Part of this work is heart-wrenching. I don’t know any of the details of people’s past, or how they came to be in Tasmania – a small island literally at the bottom of the world that none of them had heard about until they were sent here. But it’s obvious to me, through their behaviour and physical scars, that the past was full of trauma. If making gardens together, teaching people growing techniques and plant choices helps ease their way, even a tiny fraction, then that can only be a good thing.

Sustainable Living Tasmania is a Hobart based and Tasmania focused non-government organisation which provides practical information and skills for living sustainably – see www.sustainablelivingtasmania.org.au/ 

Good Life Permaculture provides services and workshops to activate the head, hearts and hands of people to live abundant, enjoyable and sustainable lives – see www.goodlifepermaculture.com.au 

The Phoenix Centre offers specialist services including counselling, advocacy, community development programs and natural therapies for survivors of torture and trauma – see www.mrchobart.org.au.

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