Growing Together Levenshulme provides vital ecotherapy for refugees caught in a chaotic asylum system
The woman who was gang-raped by five men while returning from a rally, the one whose entire family was killed in Congolese civil wars, the friends who were forced to flee (one leaving her baby behind) because of their support for Zimbabwe’s MDC party…these are the stories I’d heard prior to visiting Growing Together Levenshulme. So, visiting the charitable allotment project - which runs horticultural sessions every Tuesday for asylum seekers and refugees - I felt a little apprehensive. How to act in the face of such trauma?
As soon as the first participant arrived and flashed me a warm smile, an antidote to the drizzly grey weather, it's clear I needn't have worried. While not everyone wanted to share their story, I immediately felt welcome in this resilient little community.
The session began with everyone introducing themselves over steaming cups of tea, before volunteer Tom Spencer read out the list of tasks for the day and everyone divided into groups. I, meanwhile, went off to sit in a polytunnel and 'interview'.
My first interviewee bounded in with an infectious megawatt grin that could light up Levenshulme - this despite being currently destitute following a failed asylum application. Andy fled Zimbabwe, after his opposition to the regime placed in him in increasing danger.
“Mugabe’s henchmen would come round, asking for proof we supported the President. And the police would beat you for the slightest thing - even walking home the ‘wrong way’."
But the violence didn’t stop there. “My parents believed in tough love. My mum would pin me down and beat me so hard I thought she would kill me. And when I was sick, I’d have to hide from my dad when he came home from work. If I went to bed without permission, he’d attack me with a hosepipe. My parents also believed any adult could parent their children, so it was acceptable for the teachers to beat me with a hockey stick.”
Believing in freedom and democracy, Andy began passing information to the Movement for Democratic Change, but the police found out and sent an arrest warrant.
“When my house was smashed up by people chanting ‘Mugabe’, I realised I had to leave.”
Andy escaped to London, to join his older brother, but his fear of the authorities kept him from applying for asylum. “When I finally did, they rejected me, because they said I’d been here too long. Yet it’s dangerous for a known political opponent to return to Zimbabwe, I’d be locked up for twenty years.”
(NB: We spoke with Andy on Tuesday 14 November. On Wednesday, the military seized power and placed Mugabe under house arrest: as yet, the country's future still remains uncertain).
Due to his position, Andy is unable to work or access benefits - which, like many asylum seekers, places him in an impossible position. While he has set up a crowdfunder, and is getting a small amount of help from refugee charities, it’s a tenuous situation.
"Growing Together offers a little escapism and the chance to meet people in a similar situation"
For those still awaiting a Home Office decision - which, in its overstretched state, can take up to three years - things aren’t much better. Amira, who escaped from Pakistan after political opposition tried to kidnap her son three times (one time even opening fire) lives in constant fear.
“Where I live, there’s window smashing, people taking drugs, shouting...I don’t feel safe. Recently, someone stole my fuse and the whole house went into darkness."
It doesn’t help that, last year, eight men broke into her house and arrested her for no reason. Having been in an abusive relationship, it must have been terrifying.
“They wouldn’t let me phone my son at college, or say why they were arresting me. They were going to handcuff me, but didn’t because I was shaking so much, and I was taken to a detention centre. It’s like a jail: the food is inedible and the staff treat you with contempt. They let me out a week later and never even gave me a reason.”
“They expect proof,” Amira goes on, “but anything you give them, they don’t believe it. And in my country it’s very conservative, women don’t go to police stations, what else can I give them?”
Bukky, who escaped from a violent marriage - and a community that went against her own beliefs - is also a victim of a Home Office system facing increasing criticism: from failing to consider evidence to inhumane treatment (particularly considering many subjects have already suffered unimaginable trauma) and disgraceful accommodation crawling with bedbugs and rats.
The weekly £36 allowance for asylum seekers, meanwhile, has not been raised for years; leaving many unable to afford food and basic clothing. Then there’s the fact they can neither work nor access benefits, the bad press (which often confuses them with welfare ‘scroungers’), the interminable wait…
“I’ve now been refused refugee status twice,” Bukky tells me, “and they’ve told me I can no longer appeal. I have to attend court in January but I have no idea what’s happening, I’m in limbo. The children are anxious and I’m chronically depressed. They’re saying my dates don’t match but I’m in such a state I can’t remember one day from the next.”
“They want to perform FGM (female genital mutilation) on my daughters,” she sobs. “How could I go back to Nigeria?”
There’s a PhD student from Manchester University at Growing Together on my visit, studying the asylum system and its impact on mental health. She also works with Freedom from Torture and shakes her head. “I could tell you so many stories."
Even for those who are granted refugee status, there’s an awkward period while their funding is stopped but they can’t yet access benefits or jobs. Despite their paltry allowance, many asylum seekers therefore feel the need to save.
Needless to say, it’s a scary and isolating existence: little wonder initiatives like Growing Together are so popular, offering a little escapism and the chance to meet people in a similar situation. The charity offers travel expenses and some come from as far as Wigan and Rochdale to take advantage.
“Coming to the garden helps me get out of the house and be with people. It is one of the few times in the week when I feel good.”
Growing Together, part of Levenshulme Allotments, was initially started by Tom and his friends around ten years ago as a community gardening scheme. In 2009 they started working with Revive, a local community project that supports refugees and asylum seekers, and Growing Together (now a registered charity) was born.
“At first we accepted referrals through Revive,” says Tom, "but we were overwhelmed: our capacity is really around 30 people. Now we just operate through word of mouth.”
The project is supported by grants from the likes of National Lottery, Lush and the Co-Op - yet keeping it funded is a constant struggle.
“It costs around £10K a year to run,” says Tom, “including paying travel expenses. We have to keep applying for grants, and they often favour projects that have some big ambition.
"We’re not planning any massive firework displays or anything like that, we just want to continue. The appeal for participants here is stability, a safe space and a weekly event they can rely on to look forward to.”
At times, Growing Together has come close to closing - forcing Tom to set up a donation page - yet is just managing to scrape along. All the team are volunteers; some have specialist horticulture knowledge while others are there more to offer moral support.
Activities span gardening to building, harvesting to crafts, and there are also plans to run more classes with external practitioners following a successful meditation session with Rae Story. Volunteer Jaqui Cotton mentions a potential hygiene course while I’m there, prompting an eager show of hands.
“Participants have also suggested going out to other community groups they’re in, for example churches and mosques, and helping out with gardening there,” says Tom, who works in conservation when not volunteering.
Clearly, there’s a huge need for initiatives like Growing Together. Ecotherapy has long been known for its benefits to mental health and is strongly recommended by charities like Mind. For people who have experienced such trauma - and are sadly still encountering it - things like getting out in the fresh air, talking to people and having something to look forward to can make a life-changing difference.
As one participant said: “Coming to the garden helps me get out of the house and be with people. It is one of the few times in the week when I feel good. It has given me confidence.”
NB - Some names in this article have been changed
Other projects helping refugees and asylum seekers come together
Journeys Festival - Festival that celebrates the creative talent of refugee and asylum seekers through live music, workshops, theatre, performance, film, discussion, exhibitions and pop-up events.
The Gaskell Garden Project - Community garden space providing weekly permaculture and artistic workshops, as well as helping users access legal support through refugee and human rights organisations