Helen Mason from Action for Refugees in Lewisham, an affiliate member of LHS, describes how a local allotment creates a haven for refugees, local people and volunteers.

This article appears in our Spring 2023 Newsletter.

Since AFRIL was founded, in 2006, we have made a real difference to the lives of asylum seekers, refugees and other vulnerable migrants.  Our aim is to support our users not just in addressing their immediate needs but, as importantly to develop the skills and knowledge they need to integrate and make a real contribution to the wider community.

We offer three core services: the Rainbow Club supplementary school: the Helping Hand Foodbank and an Advice and Advocacy service.  Although we are based in Lewisham, we have reached across the border to partner with the Southwark Law Centre and our allotment is actually in Southwark as well!

Connecting with the community

As you probably know, most newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees are not allowed to take on paid work.  This means that their budgets are severely stretched and they are often under-occupied, isolated and consequently frustrated, stuck at home and less able to build relationships with each other and with other local residents.  AFRIL’s aim is to connect our asylum- seeking and refugee members with their local community.  Working on the land is a wonderful way to do that by sharing the love of growing food, enjoying the outdoors and making new acquaintances.  Not only that but many migrants have no option but to rely on foodbanks , where choice is inevitably limited and fresh and perishable foods can be hard to find.  Growing their own veg can help them to vary their diets, save money, remind them of foods from “back-home” as well as building contacts and sharing experiences.

A collective enterprise

In 2020 AFRIL was able to take on a derelict and overgrown (but south-facing and potentially fertile) plot of land, measuring 160 sq metres, on the One Tree Hill Allotment site in Honor Oak Park.  Since then we have worked to develop it into an Allotment of Refuge and it has now become an established and integrated community of gardening.  It offers a welcome and a haven of calm for refugee and migrant families, local people, volunteers, plot holders, neighbours and their families.  It is truly a collective enterprise relying upon AFRIL’s staff and supporters,  our refugee members and the other One Tree Hill allotment holders.

“Close feel to nature, de-stressing helps my situation. I feel a part of a community.”

One important development was when Rose Cowling joined our staff team in March 2022 as our Allotment Gardener. Her knowledge of growing crops and experience of working with people has helped her establish our Tuesday gardening group and Friday harvest sessions as she has grown the allotment volunteer team and worked with them to increase the yield from our plot. Following a survey with food bank members about their favourite fruit and vegetables, the team have grown culturally appropriate foods chosen by our members. The allotment currently provides a regular harvest and contribution of salad, vegetables and herbs to supplement our AFRIL food bank.

So far participants have come from a range of countries including Nigeria, Syria, Albania, Gambia, Kenya, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Ukraine and the range of crops grown on the allotment reflects that diversity!  You can hear what some of our members have to say about the allotment here.

National media interest

This new model of community gardening has already attracted the interest of local and national media including a very positive feature in the October 22 edition of SAGA magazine about the wellbeing aspects of the allotment and the impact of regular gardening on the lives of some of AFRIL’s food bank clients. You can read the article here.

A classroom and workshop

The allotment is also a great indoor/outdoor classroom and workshop space.  In 2022 we held 10 art, nature and food growing workshops at One Tree Hill, including summer activities for children from our Rainbow Club Saturday supplementary school and a Summer school for Ukrainian children and also hosted our AFRIL summer refugee week celebration in June. Over 150 people, including clients, their children, volunteers, friends and supporters came to the party to enjoy food (cooked by our members), singing led by a local community choir,  herb planting activities led by Rose and friendship in a lovely place of sanctuary.   

The benefits of this broad range of activities for our younger members has been recognised by The Childhood Trust and other charities, which have supported our fundraising by matching donations made by individuals through the Christmas and Summer Big Give campaigns.

“My children experience and know how the food we eat is grown and how to prepare some of them.”

We have just been informed that we have once again been successful in bidding for funding from the Mayor of London’s Grow Back Greener fund. This Round 3 funding, along with match-funding from other local charities will provide more than £20,000 to help us develop the next stage of the AFRIL allotment as an Eco Community Hub.

Based on respect

Our focus is and will always be on developing our activities on a basis of care and respect both for the land and for the people looking after it.  With community gardening and food growing at its heart, volunteering projects at the allotment will introduce climate friendly practices by combining traditional growing practices with newer eco-friendly techniques to encourage sustainable soil health.

The AFRIL team is also developing greater opportunities for our adult clients to take on leadership roles within AFRIL and to make  the allotment into a green space for the broader community. We are establishing a member Advisory Board and a team of community ambassadors to engage destitute migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, allotment holders and to involve our local resident neighbours in volunteering and participating in our events and workshops.

Partnership with LHS

Partnership is at the heart of all we do at AFRIL and we are keen to build partnerships with other organisations which share our values and, in particular, our love of gardening.  We were very pleased that we were sponsored to become an Affiliated Member of the Lambeth Horticultural Society last year.  We already have at least two LHS members as supporters of AFRIL and we hope to have more in the future if we can find ways of working together.

AFRIL welcomes local people, including allotment plot holders and LHS members to join our gardening team. Volunteers can join for 1 off sessions,helping with workshops,maintenance and building projects, or more regularly at our Tuesday gardening group, Friday evening harvesting for the food bank (in season) or weekend gardening Club. To find out what is going on now, email Rose Cowling, AFRIL’s Allotment Gardener or phone her on 07849 312318.

Feel free to pop across to our plot and say hello and do visit our website to find out more.

Helen Mason, Food Bank Director, AFRIL helen@afril.org.uk  ​07549 031729