In Pictures

Refugees find new roots through the power of gardening

After escaping the horrors of war and persecution in countries like Syria, Iran and Eritrea, refugees and asylum seekers are using the healing power of gardening in Tyneside.

A participant stands in a polytunnel next to a table of plants Image copyright Caroline Briggs

For the last 16 years the Comfrey Project in Gateshead has provided the space and assistance for participants to plant, grow and harvest their own vegetables on two allotment sites.

Mwansa, 60 (pictured above), has been planting with the Comfrey Project for more than ten years, having arrived in the UK as a refugee in 2000.

"I like to meet people here and plant things from my home country, Congo, like African sorrel, cassava, sweet potatoes and lots of others. Maybe this year we will grow another plant from Africa," said Mwansa.

The entrance to the polytunnel with plants bearing fruit inside Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption The allotments include a communal polytunnel, creating the perfect conditions for the warm-weather crops the refugees grew at home

For many, the project provides a vital source of nutrition, along with a sense of place and purpose after the turmoil of leaving their homes.

Three participants work on the allotment Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption The allotment provides a sense of community and shared achievement

Photographer Caroline Briggs spent a season visiting the allotments to document the activities and community spirit, but also to highlight a funding crisis for the project and its uncertain future.

The transparent wall of the polytunnel showing plants on the other side Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption By late summer the polytunnel is a blossoming jungle of gourds, squash, pumpkins and peppers
The corner of the allotment showing a metal fence on to a residential area Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption The land used on one of the allotments is a former school in residential Gateshead
A participant works inside the allotment polytunnel Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption For many, the allotment provides a sense of peace and belonging
A participant holds a chopping board and bowl of vegetables in the kitchen Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption The shared preparation of meals can create a strong bond between participants

Fardowsa, 29 (pictured above), has been a project participant for two and a half years and has made lots of friends, describing it as "my home, my family and my everything".

But she wasn't always so sure about the power of gardening, adding "I was really stressed and didn't trust anyone, I had been crying at home for six months.

"I left everyone in Somalia. My country is not a safe place. I'm in a safe country now, with lovely people, but in Newcastle the weather is very different."

Gloves dangle from a clothes line, surrounded by green plants Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption Donated tools and equipment, like these scaffolder's gloves, are used to keep the soil cultivated
Participants and volunteers sit together for a meal at a long table Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption Participants enjoy a weekly meal at a single table, sharing their crops
Participants and volunteers share out food on a table outside Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption Participants can also share as much of their lives and experiences as they feel comfortable doing
Participants plant seeds on a table in the polytunnel Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption Donated seeds, plants and compost help the project produce a year-round supply of fresh food
A wild dandelion plant is seen inside the polytunnel Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption Organic gardening means some crops are slow to produce, and wild flowers can also take advantage
Onions are seen dangling inside the polytunnel Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption Food is also stored for the future, like these onions hung in late summer and drying in the warm air of the polytunnel

While looking to secure long-term funding, the Comfrey Project also needs regular donations for the bus fares of its participants. They have been able to employ new staff and are optimistic about the future thanks to all our individual and Trust donors. Raising money for bus fares continues to be a great demand.

A participant waters plants with a hose on the allotment Image copyright Caroline Briggs
Image caption Many of the project's most dedicated members are women who fled danger and hardship in their homeland.

All photos are copyright Caroline Briggs.

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