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Finding Community Through Gardening


These five inspiring people from refugee backgrounds have come to Australia and found their sense of community through gardening. By either joining or creating community gardening groups, they have become part of a network of people sharing ideas, knowledge and food, supporting one another through the difficult transition to a new culture.


Interview by Samantha Allemann

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

Mariam Issa moved to Australia from Somalia 19 years ago. Finding herself having to bridge the gap between her family and their new community in Melbourne’s affluent suburb of Brighton, Mariam was inspired to start RAW in her own backyard.

RAW is a grassroots organisation that also comprises a permaculture garden, which brings together women to connect in a safe and welcoming space.

What was your experience of arriving in Australia?

It was really daunting and very hard. It was starting over in a new country and a new culture, and both my family and I were challenged to the core.

What is the hardest thing as a refugee arriving in Australia?

The hardest thing was the constant battle for our identity and dignity, and the lack of belonging. There were also a lot of assumptions because nobody knew our pasts. Some of these assumptions were voiced which were easy to deal with; the hard ones were the unspoken but felt assumptions.

Can you tell us about RAW?

RAW is an acronym for Resilient Aspiring Women. The RAW garden is a metaphor for my personal story, a story of new beginnings, continual change and a resilience to overcome hardships. The mission for RAW is creating social environments to celebrate the uniqueness of women in their lives, their communities and beyond. It has also become a space we share our creativity and build an environment with purpose and interconnectivity, a place where love and care are the nourishment and framework with which we nurture ourselves and our community. All this is carried out in my backyard.

What inspired you to start RAW?

I went through phases of change when I came to Australia. I come from a communal culture and I was very lonely in the beginning, so my first phase was one of victimhood. My second phase was one of anger, my last phase was one of empowerment. This was also my phase of inspiration, as I realised I wanted to work with women. The inspiration for RAW came after my empowerment phase, and my inspiration was a message for women to stop the war inside and tap into their resilience and aspiration.

How has your involvement in RAW helped you and others?

RAW has transformed my life and that of my family. It has taught us about family beyond blood relations and the power of community. We’ve created a space for trust and relationships to prosper. It is a platform for different purposes; we use it to highlight social cohesion and social justice, food, and sustainable solutions for our community’s wellbeing. We host schools, universities and community organisations, and it’s used twice a week by the local community.

Have you been able to utilise the skills and knowledge you had prior to coming to Australia in what you are doing now?

Yes, coming from a communal culture I understand the need for connectivity and trust building in our neighbourhood relationships. Our knowledge and skills are complemented in diversity!


Interview by Samantha Allemann

Photo by Jo Dean

Mohammed Ali was born in Afghanistan, moved to Iran when he was six, and came to Australia almost two years ago. He became involved with Punchbowl Community Garden, the closest shared gardening space for many Hazara (Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic group) families who live in Launceston’s west and south.

On the first Wednesday of the month, Mohammed and other participants come together to share plants, stories and seeds, and to do some plot maintenance. They also have a key to the garden, so that they can come by any time they like. Recently the City Baptist Church donated some of their carpark’s land in order for the Hazara community to establish more garden plots; this has meant that another six of the 4 metres x 3 metres plots can be built.

What was your experience of arriving in Australia?

When we first arrived, I was excited to be here and meet new people with a different culture. I was excited about a new life and learning a different language.

What is the hardest thing as a refugee arriving in Australia?

To start life from zero. Learning English and finding a job.

Why did you become involved with the Punchbowl Community Garden?

Firstly I came because I didn’t have a garden at home. I came to the community garden to meet with friends to learn about gardening. We learnt how to make compost and plant a food garden.

How has your involvement in the Punchbowl Community Garden helped you?

The garden community has helped with learning how to grow a garden. We have land here; one plot for five families. It has helped for practising English conversations and gardening words. We harvest and share the food we grow with our families.

How has it helped others?

We share plants, we plan and share ideas. Sometimes I go to other people’s houses and help put plants in the ground. Everything I learn here at the garden I share to help others.

Have you been able to utilise the skills and knowledge you had prior to coming to Australia in what you’re doing now?

When in Iran, we grew spinach, spring onions, radish and onions. There were many orange and date trees. My job in Iran was as a mechanic. I like to fix things. Here in Tasmania, sometimes my friends bring their cars for me to fix. I also volunteer one day a week at a local garage in Launceston.


Interview by Samantha Allemann

Photo by Karen Community Garden Project

Saw (Mr) Win Men arrived in Australia from Burma, now known as Myanmar, eight years ago. He is an active participant in the Karen Community Garden Project, which was established in 2009 by the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). STARTTS continues to support the three gardens, based in Villawood, Fairfield and Chester Hill.

Many Karen people (a persecuted ethnic group) have a background in farming, a skill being utilised in several community gardens in Sydney’s western suburbs.

What was your experience of arriving in Australia?

Though I was excited to come to Australia, I have very limited English so it was very hard for me to reach out to the wider community; to communicate with others, to use public transport, etc. I got sick very often and I was feeling downhearted. Though I could find a house to rent, the price was high. Government housing or affordable housing is difficult to get.

What is the hardest thing as a refugee arriving in Australia?

The hardest thing as a refugee new arrival in Australia is the language barrier. That led to other difficulties (mentioned above) or problems that affected my physical and mental wellbeing.

Why did you become involved with the Karen Community Garden Project?

I got involved in the community garden because the activities are familiar to me, as I used to do gardening or farming in my homeland. It’s natural for me. I am feeling good and am happy doing things in the garden, growing organic vegetables and getting fresh food.

How has your involvement in the Karen Community Garden Project helped you?

The garden project helped me and is good for me in many ways. It made me feel helpful and happy; touching nature, seeing green, breathing fresh air. I could socialise, make new friends, and come out from my home (breaking isolation). I could do physical activities like exercises. I could grow and produce organic fresh vegetables for my family, friends and community. STARTTS supported us very well.

How has it helped others?

I believe the garden helped other gardeners as it helped me.

Have you been able to utilise the skills and knowledge you had prior to coming to Australia in what you’re doing now?

I have been able to use some of my skills and knowledge, such as gardening and farming, and organisation and leadership of groups as a community and church leader.


Interview by Samantha Allemann

Photo by Cultivating Community

Shadya Haji Saleh left Sudan in 1995 to settle with her husband in Australia. Having learned how to garden as a young girl, it was a skill she wanted to pass on to her son. She became involved with the Collingwood garden run by Cultivating Community, a not-for-profit organisation supporting 21 public housing gardens across Melbourne.

Shadya has recruited several friends to join her in the garden, and she has also made new friends with other keen green thumbs.

What was your experience of arriving in Australia?

I was excited, because I just got married in Sudan and was starting a new life in Australia.

What was the hardest thing as a refugee about arriving in Australia?

When I was a child, my family left Eritrea due to the war and we went to Sudan as refugees. I didn’t come to Australia as a refugee, I came to be with my husband. The hardest part is being separated from family, parents and friends that are back home.

Why did you to get involved with Cultivating Community’s garden?

My mother taught me about gardening when I was a child and I wanted to continue that by teaching my youngest son about our love for gardening, so my friend and I applied for a community garden plot.

How has your involvement in Cultivating Community’s garden helped you?

The garden has saved us a lot of money because we grow our own vegetables. It has taught us about different gardening ideas, garden care and cleaning, as well as being patient.

How has it helped others?

The community garden helped us become friends with other people that like gardening; sharing their vegetables, and gardening tips and ideas. I also got three of my friends involved and learning about gardening. I have learnt about new foods from other cultures and countries, like growing mint leaves, and have shared it with my friends who then told their friends. I also taught my friends about growing rocket and lettuce, and aloe vera, which is very good for hair care and pimple treatment.

Have you been able to utilise the skills and knowledge you had prior to coming to Australia in what you are doing now?

Yes, a lot of the things I do now is because of what I learnt from before coming to Australia. I learnt to work hard, be patient, raise children and cook from my mum, which has helped me very much since I moved to Australia. Over the years I’ve cooked for many family relatives (eight people a day), for camps, events and much more. All these skills have helped me to find work here in Australia. I’m now making many of my mother’s recipes for people in Melbourne through the catering jobs that I’m doing in my local community. I love it when I can use vegetables from my community garden in my cooking.


Interview by Ananth Gopal

Photo by Ananth Gopal

Su Meh was born on the border of Thailand and Burma, from the East Karenni state. She arrived in Australia ten years ago and now works at Green Connect Urban Farm in Wollongong.

Green Connect is a social enterprise which recovers waste and grows fair food. In doing so, they also support and employ former refugees and young people.

What was your experience of arriving in Australia?

When I first came I saw the ocean. I had never seen the ocean before; we are mountain people. I saw the ocean and felt very scared. I was worried it might come into the city! I felt that Wollongong would be good for me and good for my family. We could seek some education and a better life.

What was the hardest thing as a refugee in Australia?

Finding a job.

Why did you get involved with Green Connect Urban Farm?

I prayed to God to help me find a job and God answered my prayer. I found Green Connect Farm. I was first working for SCARF (Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families) and they helped me find Green Connect. I am now the sub-manager of the Farm.

How has your involvement in the Green Connect Urban Farm helped you?

I love to work at Green Connect. I feel very happy. We grow food without putting chemicals in it. We grow food that you can just pick and eat, no need to wash. Back in the refugee camp and in Karenni state, there were no chemicals. We like organic as it has more vitamins. Because my husband and I are both farmers here in Australia we can teach our kids. We bought our own house and my kids can get an education. Without education, you cannot do anything.

How has it helped others?

Many Karenni families are now in Wollongong. Finding a job is very hard. You need the English. If you don’t have it, it is very difficult. Green Connect farm means we can use our farming skills and grow chemical free vegetables. Many other Karenni people and refugee people work here doing the farming. We can get a job, earn some money and look after our families.

Have you been able to utilise the skills and knowledge you had prior to coming to Australia in what you’re doing now?

We are farming people. We know how to grow the rice, how to grow bananas, how to look after the environment. I teach my children like my dad taught me.


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