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Plants, mental health and an unrecognised humanitarian crisis

Feb 18, 2020 • 13m 15s

Asylum seekers who have been cut off from government support are finding solace in an unexpected place: their own community garden.

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Plants, mental health and an unrecognised humanitarian crisis

165 • Feb 18, 2020

Plants, mental health and an unrecognised humanitarian crisis

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
Government policies have left thousands of asylum seekers on bridging visas, stuck in the community without work rights or, sometimes, even housing.

This story is about a small program to address associated mental health issues through gardening.
Zoe Morrison reported on this program for The Monthly. She spoke to our field and features producer, Elle Marsh.

[Theme music ends]

ELLE:

So I guess we'll get started. Zoe, can you tell me how this program began?

ZOE:

So it’s a very small, very new social enterprise started by a woman from Kentucky, Sherry Maddock, who arrived in Melbourne a few years ago with experience of leading community gardens.

ELLE:

Zoe Morrison is an author with a doctorate in social inclusion.

ZOE:

So they were granted access to a semi basement space owned by their Collins Street Baptist Church, and they started to grow a garden in this place, which is like a metre underground.

Archival Tape -- Sherry Maddock:

“Welcome to the green room! It’s what we’ve made into an indoor garden…”

ZOE:

The only window is this crack in the ceiling at one far end...

Archival Tape -- Sherry Maddock:

“In making this space a living garden, there is natural light at the front end, so there’s a skylight, and that’s the extent of the natural light…”

ZOE:

But using existing lighting, some tracking lights from IKEA that they salvaged from a skip in the city and no heating or cooling because they can't afford it. They've got hundreds of indoor plants thriving in this place and being propagated for use by others...

Archival Tape -- Sherry Maddock:

“I realised this summer that I’m responsible for probably 3, 4, 500 plants, because I’ve put them in office space, in stairwells, on the front veranda…”

ZOE:

And they've run workshops there, they run free community lunches which are attended by asylum seekers, and people got to know about their work, including BaptCare Sanctuary and it’s a residential facility for unaccompanied male asylum seekers. So these are people who have experienced homelessness while waiting the outcome of their application for a protection visa or humanitarian claim.

Archival Tape -- Sherry Maddock:

“I've had years of experience prior in helping with refugee resettlement and in doing this work, I recognise that plants can be great healers and companions.”

ZOE:

Sherry was asked to contribute to this positive mental health culture there, and she put indoor plants in dark corridors and in communal spaces. And she also offered residents plants for their rooms.

Archival Tape -- Sherry Maddock:

“So they are, I think, able to address, in small ways, social isolation, vulnerability and trauma.

ZOE:

And she ran plant care workshops. And people were pretty reluctant to attend. But she found that if she left plants behind, they would always be gone by the time she got back. People began to really nurture these plants that they were given. It was really quite a transformative relationship.

Archival Tape -- Sherry Maddock:

“And so we thought when we thought about planting places in a garden and how it could be a welcoming, peaceful, therapeutic space, we wanted to specifically build relationships with people from all over the world who are here in Victoria seeking asylum.”

ELLE:

So Zoe, you visited the facility in Melbourne’s north. Can you tell me about some of the people seeking asylum that you met there?

ZOE:

So Baptcare sanctuary in Brunswick was this former nursing home, which is this rabbit warren of a building with 13 individual courtyards that had become quite unkempt. So with some of the residents who were involved, they decided, okay, we'll do three courtyard gardens, one will be a native Australian garden, and two will be food producing spaces.
There was this remarkable young man I met and he offered to show me the plants in his room. He had Snake plant on his windowsill that he'd propagated with Sherry in the basement space in Collins Street called The Green Room. He had a tiny tendril of a plant, it was just roots and three leaves in a vase with sort of pink tips, which he pointed out had sprouted roots.

This garden of his, it sort of started to spread. So outside his room he had put potted plants, down the corridor were some absolutely stunning, like quite huge plants in pots. And it turned out he'd actually salvaged them from the old gardens when they were being cleared. People didn't really know what he was doing, but he said that Sherry understood what he was doing.

There were some shelves by the entrance with lots and lots of wine glasses. And in them were some Devil’s Ivy that was being propagated. And he told me that this was to show the other residents what was possible
These men are very different, but 100 percent of them are experiencing really quite severe trauma. And sometimes when you're in that very dark place, what can assist to see a bit of light is by being able to take responsibility for the care of another.

And when they did an assessment of that project, there were quotes from the men who said things like, I want to keep myself alive and I want to keep my plant alive, or when my hands touched the soil, I woke up.
Obviously, this isn't a change to the huge structural circumstances, but I think in these situations, small things can actually be big things. They can have a really big impact on people's lives.

What's happening in Australia at the moment is that asylum seekers living in the community are experiencing actually unprecedented levels of destitution and homelessness, and also despair.
I think in Australia we've been understandably mesmerised by the atrocity of offshore processing of asylum seekers and incarceration, really, of asylum seekers. But we actually have on our doorstep now what could be called a humanitarian crisis.

ELLE:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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ELLE:

Zoe, we're talking about asylum seekers who are living in Australia while they await the outcome of their refugee applications. Can you tell me a little bit about that situation?

ZOE:

Yeah, so there are a number of stages that asylum seekers go through when they're waiting to have their visa processed -If they get a negative decision, first of all, they might decide to appeal that. And if they still get a negative decision, it might be possible, depending, to appeal that again. And the issue is that this process takes years. And the further you get down that sort of appeal process, the less, usually, the less and less support you're receiving. So when people have been here for a number of years, they can actually be in a situation where they're not receiving any income support. They don't have work rights and they don't have access to things like Medicare. So this is a situation of, you know, extreme destitution.
This is not just the sort of the stereotype of the unaccompanied male asylum seeker. This is actually families with children, too.

ELLE:

And a significant change is that the government has now reduced - or cut off entirely - the main welfare payment that was available to people in the community seeking asylum.

ZOE:

Yeah, so before these cuts were made, there was more than 13000 people receiving this particular payment, the SRSS payment, which was, look, really meagre as it was, it was 85 percent of Newstart. But with cuts, that will be reduced to less than 5000 people receiving it. And the Refugee Council of Australia has estimated that this will lead to around 80 per cent of the people who are receiving it being at risk of homelessness.

So we're in a situation where at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, people are actually lining up in the morning for their homelessness kits, for swags, for sleeping bags.

There's a situation I know of where a mother has stopped sending her children to school, because they literally have nothing to put in the lunchboxes. And families with children over six were one of the groups of people who were cut from the SRSS. So this is really, you know, showing a, you know, a fundamental problem with this institution, with this policy.

ELLE:

And given the scale of this anguish, how much can gardening program contribute?

ZOE:

Yeah, it's a good question. So there has been an escalation in the number of asylum seekers in the community taking their own lives.

So this is sort of the measure of the despair. It's sort of an excruciating level of uncertainty for people. So, yeah, a gardening program. I mean, how absurd, right? However, it sort of taps into a whole bunch of areas of research, if we want to get, like, academic about this. So there's this whole research on the benefits of gardening and indoor plants. And then there's the more recent research on the benefits of community gardening and gardening programs in places like nursing homes that have been found to increase socialisation and physical activity and mental wellbeing and reduce loneliness and and those sorts of things. What Sherry Maddock is doing is something that goes further than this.

Archival Tape -- Sherry Maddock:

“Just having one plant to tend and keep, to check on, to contribute to its life and especially its growth if it begins to grow in response to your care, it draws something deep in a person in their sense of agency.”

ZOE:

She's looking at our relationships of attachment with plants and what it means to extend yourself for the welfare of another and how that can actually have a beneficial effect on oneself.

Archival Tape -- Sherry Maddock:

“So it's relational. I mean, it's fundamentally relational, like a pet, which is...beautiful.”

ZOE:

And I think we can see that at a level when people are forced to have no control over their lives, when they're being separated from the people that they love, when they're being told that there's something wrong with them, that they've done something wrong, they're not being respected by the community or that society that they're in, to be given the opportunity to care for something else can actually be very powerful.
You know, we have a pandering to the baser instincts in us as an Australian democracy as opposed to our better instincts. Whereas, you know, what I saw during this article is these pockets of compassion and hope and change and people doing their best to not only survive, but thrive under extremely difficult circumstances.

ELLE:

Thanks so much, Zoe.

ZOE

Thank you.

RUBY:

Lifeline’s number is 13 11 14.
Elle Marsh is our features and field producer. Her position is supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news:
US car manufacturer General Motors has announced that the iconic Australian brand Holden will be axed by 2021. Holden shut down its Australian manufacturing operations in 2017, resulting in hundreds of job losses. General Motors said that it would be scrapping the Holden brand because the cars were no longer competitive in the current market.

And the ABC’s attempt to challenge the legal validity of the federal police raid on its offices in Sydney has been thrown out by the federal court. In June last year, AFP officers accessed computer files searching for documents related to the The Afghan Files - a series of stories revealing allegations of war crimes against Australian soldiers. The ABC challenged the validity of the warrant used by the AFP but was unsuccessful. The ABC’s head of investigations, John Lyons, said in response to the federal court decision: "It is a bad day for Australian journalism”.

I’m Ruby Jones, see you Wednesday.

[Theme music ends]

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding among thousands of asylum seekers living in Australia without work rights and in some cases without housing. The impact on mental health is enormous. One program in Melbourne is supporting asylum seekers by giving them the opportunity to grow their own community garden. Zoë Morrison on addressing trauma in unexpected ways.

Guest: Author and writer for The Monthly Zoë Morrison.

Background reading:

Planting hope in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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auspol refugees asylumseekers gardening mentalhealth




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165: Plants, mental health and an unrecognised humanitarian crisis