The national charity City of Sanctuary is working with gardens across the country to create a network of places of sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees.
Although Gardens of Sanctuary is a new project, started officially in 2017, it has already provided green spaces for asylum seekers and refugees all over the country, and it is continuing to expand.
The project trains staff and volunteers at farms, smallholdings and community gardens and turns them into welcoming places that offer community and land to work on. The founders of the project, Sophie Antonelli and Ben Margolis are working on funding and resources to eventually have a map of gardens that have met a specific criteria and have been accredited as places of sanctuary.
Antonelli and Margolis came up with the idea while working on The Grange; a farm in Norfolk that worked with survivors of torture. Antonelli said it was working here that made her realise that as someone who was running a community garden in Peterborough, she did not know enough about the asylum system in the UK.
“I always thought that everyone was welcome in our community garden and we had worked with some refugees but we hadn’t really put any thought into it, and we hadn’t really put any thought into what their backgrounds might be, or any particular needs that they might have,” she said.
So Antonelli and Margolis put together some resources for gardens to make their spaces more welcoming. They both said that this often looks very different for each place. Antonelli suggested that it might be labelling tools in different languages or raining staff in mental health first aid. They also recommended that green spaces partner with organisations that specialise in supporting refugees and asylum seekers.
Both Antonelli and Margolis stressed how important it is for staff and volunteers to know about the asylum system. “Asylum seekers aren’t permitted to work; they have very strict restrictions on the type of housing they might be given while they’re waiting for a claim to go through. They usually get about £37 a week, and they can be moved at any time to the other side of the country. They have very limited rights,” said Antonelli.
Their inability to work in the country is one of the reasons working with the land is so beneficial, said Margolis. Gardens of Sanctuary provide something to do for people who have no jobs to go to and no money to spend on any activities. Another really important benefit is the opportunity gardening often provides for refugees and asylum seekers to realise their skills.
Margolis told a story of harvesting squash where he went to cut off the leaves and the squash glands to turn into compost when the people he was harvesting with shouted at him for the waste of food. “In their communities, they would eat the leaves and the squash glands, which we did, and it was absolutely delicious,” said Margolis, “the asylum system really forces people into seeing themselves as victims, as receivers of charity, as having to justify their existence constantly. To find the space where you can suddenly see yourself as having agency, having skills, having things to share is really powerful.”
Outside of providing sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers and accommodating learning both ways, Antonelli is passionate about making Gardens of Sanctuary a symbol of welcome to combat any racist and xenophobic attitudes they might have experienced. “We’ve already seen refugees building show gardens at Hampton Court flower show and we want the work that we’re doing to unlock some of that potential,” said Antonelli.