Digging for sanctuary

Ahmad tending his plot.

Ali Mousavi

In a little green oasis by a train track on the poorer side of the River Exe in South-west England, asylum seekers work alongside English volunteers in a garden where unusual friendships across generations and between nationalities are flourishing alongside the leeks, garlics and potatoes.

At harvest time, Zafar loads up a communal bicycle and takes vegetables across town to offer them free to anyone who comes into the offices of Refugee Support Group (RSG), a Devon organization open to about 300 refugees and asylum seekers who live in and around Exeter. ‘When I get up in the morning, I shower, and I go straight away to the garden,’ says Zafar, who’s from Afghanistan and would rather not give his last name. ‘It’s like my house.’

The allotment gives the asylum seekers a place to take their minds off their troubles and heal their memories while they tend the plants

Zafar says it’s satisfying to be providing food for others. ‘People say thank you… It’s nice to have fresh food.’ Everything is expensive when you’re living on less than the minimum wage. The Government has just cut the amount asylum seekers over the age of 25 are entitled to claim while they’re waiting for a decision on their applications to £35.13 a week (about US$56), down from £42.16, which is already 30 per cent less than income support for a British citizen. And the payment is in vouchers, rather than cash. RSG, which runs the allotment, helps asylum seekers and refugees deal with often-baffling bureaucracy, from navigating the immigration system to accessing health care or enrolling on English classes. As well as offering practical advice, a friendly cup of tea and a photocopier, RSG has a thriving women’s group that welcomes new arrivals. The allotment tends to be the domain of asylum seekers, who have more time on their hands than refugees, since they’re not allowed to work. It gives them a place to take their minds off their troubles and heal their memories while they tend the plants. Zafar says working outdoors has made him happier and appreciate his youth instead of dwelling on the negative: ‘It’s good for your body. It makes you feel better.’

Ahmad, an Iranian who doesn’t want to use his real name, says he knows refugees who are dealing with depression. He saw at least three asylum seekers die violently during the journey to England. ‘We have all experienced something on the way. We all have stories,’ he says. Ahmad has built a pond on the allotment, and takes a book there if he needs a retreat. ‘When things get heavy, I run down there.’

Constant uncertainty

Asylum seekers live in constant uncertainty about their future in the United Kingdom, even though their countries are synonymous with conflict and upheaval. While news headlines about violence in Afghanistan mount up, people who work with asylum seekers say deportations to Afghanistan are on the rise. Since 2006, asylum seekers have been told they won’t get a decision on their cases until July 2011, but are still refused permission to work in the meantime.

Most of the refugees in Exeter are from Afghanistan or Iran, the legacy of a government scheme starting in 2000 to disperse asylum seekers through four consortiums around the country, under which Devon was the destination for Afghans, Iranians and Kurds. In more recent years, there’s been a trickle of newcomers from places like Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Europe, and Zimbabwe.

Ahmad's pond

Ali Mousavi

Since leaving Iran 10 years ago, Ahmad says he’s crossed paths with asylum seekers from various corners of the world. ‘For me it was a privilege to meet people from other places,’ he says.

Most of the British volunteers who share their time and knowledge on the RSG allotment are retired, and it seems to be predominantly women. Pat Comery, who grew up in a family where gardening was part of life, says: ‘You’re working outside and growing vegetables. It feels great.’ She’s enjoyed the unlikely friendships that have built up, overcoming language barriers that made it hard to communicate at first. ‘It’s having a common interest,’ she says. ‘Now we talk all the time.’

Taking charge

RSG found people got more satisfaction from taking charge of their own small patches of the allotment, rather than working on one large big communal area. They take pride from being personally responsible, but still help each other out when they need it.

People get more satisfaction from taking charge of their own small patches of the allotment, rather than working on one large big communal area. They take pride from being personally responsible, but still help each other out when they need it

Zafar is proud of the gardening knowledge he’s gained after three years. Another volunteer used to guide him through the seasons on the allotment, month by month, and an old man on a nearby allotment gives him advice. ‘This year I did it myself,’ he beams. Now he can teach other people, showing them how to space onions and garlic.

Outside the allotment, Zafar says verbal abuse against refugees and asylum seekers has increased. Their initial reception was welcoming, but some now feel less safe. One woman in a shop told him she should be served first for being born here. ‘This big pain breaks your heart. It’s better to punch you than break your heart.’

But between the volunteers and the young asylum seekers, there’s a gentle, respectful camaraderie. They make it sound like fun when they describe how, once a year, the retired history teacher who does most of RSG’s fundraising hooks up a trailer to his car and they go on a trip to collect manure for the allotment.

The global financial crisis is taking its toll on RSG’s funders, who are mostly small foundations vulnerable to investment fluctuations, and the organization will run out of money in 2010 if it doesn’t find some new backing. The allotment’s volunteers are sanguine in the face of the uncertain future. Zafar would like to see more people get involved: ‘If they just tried it for a week or two, they would feel good. All these years, I’ve been working hard… I love it.’

Guatemala

‘Peace is not just something that you sign on paper: it needs to be built,’ is a frequent comment by Guatemalan human-rights activists. Although it is nearly seven years since peace accords were signed, officially ending 36 years of armed conflict, life is not much improved for most Guatemalans.

The war began with a guerrilla uprising in 1960 – six years after a CIA-backed coup deposed the democratically elected government which had confiscated lands for redistribution from a US fruit company. The economic and social discrimination in which the insurgency was rooted has not been resolved. About 60 per cent of the population is indigenous but political power, wealth and land is firmly concentrated in the hands of people who proudly trace their roots to Germany or Spain.

The conflict – one of the most brutal in the hemisphere – was deeply influenced by the Cold War. A UN-sponsored truth commission reported in 1999 that about 200,000 people were killed – 80 per cent of them unarmed civilians. It also established that government forces were guilty of genocide.

The worst violence in the countryside took place in the early 1980s, and yet the dictator of that time – retired General Efraín Ríos Montt – is now president of Congress, and his party – the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) – is in government. Ríos Montt is constitutionally barred from the presidency because he previously came to power through a coup, but he is the party’s preferred candidate and many people say they would vote for him.

The FRG – traditionally on the far Right of the spectrum – initially co-opted many formerly well-respected figures of the Left, but soon gained a reputation for corruption and has generally failed to implement the recommendations of the peace accords or the truth commission.

Photo: Peter Stalker

Some communities have better access to telephones, electricity, roads and schools since the conflict ended, but violent crime has soared. Former military figures have been implicated in drug trafficking and kidnappings by organized criminal gangs.

The rule of law is clearly weak, and there are constant rumours of an imminent coup, but human-rights activists say there would be little benefit for the army, since it already enjoys extensive power and impunity. They suggest that the spectre of a coup provides the perfect pretext for delaying demilitarization.

Political violence has increased in the last two years, with threats, abductions, assassinations and violent robberies directed against human-rights organizations, campaigners for land and indigenous rights, women’s groups, journalists, academics, students, lawyers and judges.

Several groups – including one led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú – are pursuing prosecutions against former dictators. Few prosecutions for political crimes have been successful, though, and most of these have been later overturned. There have been small victories at a local level, with villages achieving exhumations of mass graves, reburying their dead and erecting monuments.

Natural disasters, war, poverty and the hope of earning large amounts of money have led thousands of Guatemalans to make the trip north through Mexico to the United States – usually illegally – and everyone has an uncle or a brother there. Most migrants work for several years before coming back.

More than a million people were displaced during the armed conflict. Groups of refugees returned from Mexico between 1993 and 1999, but many remained.

Guatemalans are largely pessimistic about the future, and yet face life day-to-day without despairing. This attitude is reflected in a phrase you hear in the countryside as encouragement from one peasant to another carrying an enormous bundle of wood up a steep hill – ‘poco a poco’ , which roughly translates as ‘one step at a time’.

Ruth Gidley

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