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Growing together

19 October 2022

An allotment tended by refugees has proved wonderfully fertile ground for nurturing a sense of sanctuary and community. By Joanna Moorhead.

Community allotment
Photography by Cristian Barnett

For Chi Chi Amelo it’s another busy day at the allotment. In amidst the planting and the watering she pauses to enjoy the views from the beautiful sloping site of One Tree Hill Allotments in south-east London. With the sunshine, the companionship with other gardeners and the sense of purpose, Chi Chi gives the sense she’s living the dream.

The truth is rather different. For the past 10 years her life has been in limbo, and she only recently got permission to remain in the UK. Aged 54, she has had to survive with no work, no opportunities and certainly no garden. She sought sanctuary from Nigeria and spent her days sharing a cramped flat with her two young adult sons.

But then she discovered One Tree Hill and for the past two years it has given her the oasis that, she says, has kept her sane. ‘Being close to nature, finding a place of peace – this was life-changing for me,’ she says. ‘It reminded me of home but it also gave me hope.’

This small patch of countryside provides a much-needed green space for people like Chi Chi, who spends every Tuesday afternoon here at a gardening session run by local charity Action for Refugees in Lewisham (AFRIL). ‘We chat and grow our own food – sometimes it’s the same crops, but we call it different names because we’re from different parts of the world,’ she says. ‘I love cooking what I’ve grown here, especially the kea (kale), and the green beans. They’re organic and they taste so much better than those you buy from the supermarket.’

‘It was just a bit of land with a shed and two beds, but we knew it had potential’

A few years ago AFRIL members had the idea of taking on a 160 sq metre plot, for the use of displaced people. Then, a few months after the inauguration of the allotment, the borough – Lewisham – became the first local authority in Britain to be granted ‘Borough of Sanctuary’ status, marking its spirit of welcome for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. ‘That formalised what was already happening at the allotment,’ says Helen Mason, 58, director of AFRIL’s food bank. ‘The local welcome for people seeking sanctuary is deep and demonstrated in simple but practical ways.’

The project did, though, take a while to flourish. ‘At first it was just a bit of land with a shed and two beds, and no proper pathways,’ says Helen. ‘But we knew it had potential so we asked those who use our services what they’d like to do with it.’

One Tree Hill Allotment sign

Clients come from a range of countries including Nigeria, Syria, Albania, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Ukraine. Many are refugees – those who have fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations there. They may have been forced to flee persecution or armed conflicts, or might have been targeted just because of their sexuality or religion, for example. Refugees have a right to international support from the UN Convention for Refugees 1951. An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking protection but hasn’t yet been legally recognised as a refugee.

At first the people AFRIL approached were nonplussed. ‘They had no idea what we meant when we talked about an allotment,’ says Helen. ‘But then we started saying ‘land’, and straight away everyone understood. Most of them had farmed in the countries where they’d grown up.’

AFRIL started putting leaflets about the allotment into the food parcels they distribute. Asylum-seekers aren’t allowed to work, and even refugees who do have the right to work often can’t find a job, which means they could struggle to survive without food banks. ‘It’s about supporting people to grow their own healthy food, and it’s about growing food we can put into the food parcels,’ says Helen.

In autumn 2020 she applied to the Mayor of London’s Covid regeneration fund, Grow Back Greener, and successfully netted an £8,000 grant, which AFRIL had to match with donations and staff time. ‘The first thing we did was bring water onto the site. Then we made the beds smaller and redesigned the pathways. We also gave out seeds with our food parcels for families to do small gardening projects at home in lockdown – sofa gardening.’

‘It’s brought people together whose paths wouldn’t have otherwise crossed’

A big plus was that, during the pandemic, allotments were never out of bounds, so when Helen had the idea of putting up a timber building, she put a call out for volunteers – and was inundated with offers of help. The result is a shelter that gives users somewhere to go when it rains, plus a decked area where they can sit and take in the view. ‘It’s brought people together whose paths wouldn’t have otherwise crossed,’ says Helen. ‘Local residents who had no idea how it felt to be a migrant from another part of the world living down the street from them. It’s made the community more aware of the needs of the incomers.’

Two years on from its redevelopment, the allotment is thriving, having hosted numerous community events, including apple-pressing days, as well as workshops. Last year, 130 AFRIL clients were involved in allotment activities. And, as Helen points out, it doesn’t divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Whether working on the land or taking part in an activity, there’s an equality that means a lot to everyone.’

Certainly when it comes to planting, the allotment gardener Rose Cowling – who’s employed by AFRIL to work here ten hours a week – says she’s learnt a huge amount from its users. ‘I’ve been introduced to plants I’d never heard of. It’s also been fascinating learning about the things people do with the same plant in a different culture – for example, with pumpkins we use the fruit in the UK, but in Africa they use the leaves, as we use spinach.’

Community allotment portrait

And it’s not just crops: Anyi Niwafo shows me the ‘gossip patch’ he instigated, a collection of tree trunk seats where people can chat. ‘It’s an African idea, because there we live a more communal life. If anyone is sitting in the gossip garden it means they’re up for a conversation, and someone else will come to join them.’

Anyi and his wife Ebere, both in their mid-fifties, have an application for asylum that is still ongoing. They take two buses to get to One Tree Hill. ‘It’s worth the journey,’ says Ebere. ‘We wouldn’t miss our time here for anything.’ For Anyi, who is keen to do community-orientated work when he’s allowed, the allotment’s role in keeping up his spirits has been vital. ‘Here I feel I can contribute – I can offer some skills and be useful,’ he says.

It’s also a place where people can talk about their worries and difficulties, says volunteer Joy Heard. ‘When you’re working with someone on a garden you’re not sitting face to face, and that gives you space for a conversation. They can relax, they can let go, they can talk.’

For Chi Chi, the allotment has provided a family when her own is thousands of miles away. ‘The other allotment users have become my family, and having their support has helped me through the hardest times,’ she says. ‘It’s truly been my sanctuary. And now when I get my food parcel and it contains the vegetables that I’ve helped to grow, I have a sense of pride. I feel I belong here, and the work I’m doing is giving something back to the community that’s welcomed me.’

The benefits of an allotment

  • Gardening on an allotment is usually very sociable. As well as informal chats and friendship, many allotments host events for the wider community, such as open days and harvest thanksgivings.
  • A study at the University of Westminster in 2015 found allotment gardeners had higher self-esteem after just one session. Over a longer period they suffered less from depression and fatigue, and were physically more mobile.
  • Gardeners can choose to grow vegetables without chemicals, giving a cheap supply of food that’s both delicious and healthy.
  • It’s a great activity in which to include grandchildren – introducing the next generation to nature.

For more on AFRIL, click here. (The names of the AFRIL clients in this article have been changed.)


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