Refuge and Asylum: A Gardener’s Guide

February 15, 2016 | Sarah Stewart.

Gardens are a cultural staple the world over. You would be hard put to find a major world religion in which gardens do not feature; the sheer multitude of garden-related metaphors you hear everyday are testament to our language’s continuing reliance on concepts born in gardens, not to mention the prevalence of the garden in literary and artistic traditions. For millennia, gardens have been reflections of divine order on earth; spaces to display status, but, fundamentally, they are places where people negotiate with the land, and other people, in order to thrive. Given their global relevance, what potential do gardens and gardening have to bridge barriers between cultures and people of vast differences in background and experience? Between, say, established British citizens and asylum seekers and refugees?

Photo Credit: Anguskirk

The UK charity Freedom from Torture has used gardening in addition to conventional counselling for over 20 years. I speak here about people who have endured extreme trauma but it is important to understand that this doesn’t account for all asylum seekers as claims for refugee status are based on the threat of future persecution. In any case, a transplant into new soil is vital but, for this reason, also extremely distressing. In a 2011 interview (BBC One), Freedom from Torture psychotherapist Caroline Roemmele indicates how gardens help to establish a pre-linguistic connection that steadies the mind: ‘I can’t calm them down just by what I say. It’s also what they do and what the land does through the working on the land.’ A Freedom from Torture client explains more fully: ‘Before, I don’t even talk the way I’m talking now. I don’t even talk. It’s like when you force you [sic] to engage yourself in something, doing something continuously because you concentrate on one particular thing. […] So it’s like your mind is connected with what you are doing. It has given me life’ (BBC One).

Though an asylum seeker’s original root system may be tatters, the garden’s ability to stabilise the mind often very slowly yields fruit, many times in the form of speech, a coming to terms. Suzanne Hodge (45) says finding language is a primary goal of an asylum seeker and refugee gardening project in Liverpool: ‘to use metaphors drawn from the natural world to help the families deal with the traumatic experiences they have lived through’. A newspaper article on a similar gardening initiative in Oxford notes that, one year, ‘the project grew courgettes, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, herbs, tomatoes and potatoes and only the potatoes failed – they rotted. “In one refugee the rotting potatoes brought out a feeling that he could not put down roots in this country until he had cleared through the memories of what had happened to him and his family”’ (Owen B10).

The heaping helping of metaphor gardens offer leads me to wonder how asylum seekers and refugees might interact with citizens conceptually via literature, where gardens are so prominent. It is no accident that Freedom from Torture’s 2013 testimonial theatre piece Souvenirs uses the garden as a frame within which five asylum seekers tell their stories, and in Chris Cleave’s bestselling novel The Other Hand, a young Nigerian asylum seeker’s key scenes of encounter take place in gardens. While gardens are ubiquitous, our different ideas about them and relationships to them provide compelling food for thought.  Sam Durrant tells how Wendell Berry’s poem ‘The Peace of Wild Things,’ in which the poet finds freedom lying in the quiet of nature, provoked in his asylum seeker reading group feelings of defeat at the hands of a dehumanising system: ‘For those whose humanity has been called into question […] to commune with “wild things” seemed to threaten a traumatic repetition of their expulsion from the domain of the human’ (51). For many asylum seekers and refugees (especially those coming from rural economies), the land is empowering as a place to work and grow food rather than, as Durrant finds out, the post-industrial haven of a Wordsworthian tradition.

In the sanctuary of the garden, asylum seekers and refugees gain resilience physically and emotionally. But, in also providing conceptual tools, the humble garden furnishes asylum seekers, refugees and citizens with a metaphorical space of negotiation and understanding. Speaking in the garden, asylum seekers challenge how we understand and arrange the world through one of the most iconic metaphors of civilisation.


About Sarah

I’m working on a PhD looking at representations of refugee and asylum seeker experience in the UK. I hold a BA (HONS) in English and Spanish, an MA in Comparative Literature (both from the University of Auckland) and am ever the student of literatures of displacement and resistance.

Edited by Bridget Moynihan and Adam Clay.

Works Cited

BBC One. “BBC Inside Out London: 28 November 2011” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 27 Jan 2015. Web. 17 Dec 2015.

Durrant, Sam. “Reading Asylum: Tweyambe!” Asylum Accounts, a special issue of Moving Worlds, 12.2, 2012.

Hodge, Suzanne. “Research into Practice.” Community Care (2003): 45. Print.

Owen, Jane. “Safe Haven among the Courgettes. (Oxford Refugee Support Scheme; Me and My Garden; Weekend)(Column).” The Times 15 July 2000: B10. Print.

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