Gardeners’ world


Rosie McGlade learns how to make a biryani at a gardening and cookery project that’s become an oasis of hope and purpose for asylum seekers in the region

The Comfrey Project began on a Newcastle West End allotment, its aim to bring together people who’d fled countries where their lives were in danger, and to help them heal
through gardening.

It’s manager Yvonne Hartnett talks about recent research that links repetitive, rhythmic activities to significant improvements in mental health, and the power of small achievements, like stepping back to admire the row of plants you’ve just dead-headed, to promote positive feelings and a sense of esteem.

But most of all, this project is about companionship. “Isolation is one of the worst things anyone can endure,” Yvonne says, “and that’s a very real danger for many people here. Gardening is good for you in so many ways.”

The Comfrey Project, named after a nurturing herb and now into its 11th year, is also very much about cooking. Most days of the week, the small kitchen in its new centre is packed with people from all over the world – Iran, Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, among others – and I find them learning the intricacies of chicken biryani, courtesy of Nadheera from Sri Lanka.

“When you’re cooking basmati rice, use the handle of a long wooden spoon to gently stir it, not the spoon end,” she says.

IMG_0757The rice is just over half boiled before it’s taken off the heat and carefully spooned into a large pan, layered between curry and coriander before going in the oven for half an hour. It smells of cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and bay leaves. Next time, it’ll be the turn of a different participant from a whole other culinary tradition to be teacher. There is nothing like food for bringing people together, just as there’s nothing like it for leveling differences. Most people, whatever their nationality, love to share good food. We all love to laugh, too, and there’s plenty of that going on.

The project has two allotments in Newcastle and last November took up a new home in a former children’s nursery in Bensham, Gateshead, with an acre or so of land. In the distance you can see right up the Tyne Valley and even now, in late winter, you can tell the garden is going to be fabulous. Certainly, there’s no shortage of people prepared to put in the required hard work.

Sanja Ratkusic, a refugee whose family fled from Bosnia in the 1990s and who is now the project’sIMG_0676 horticulturalist, gives us a tour. There’ll be a foraging hedge with seahawthorn, sloes and brambles which it is hoped will fill with birds and provide fruit for preserves in the autumn. There’ll also be beehives and honey, and great swathes of vegetable plots and poly tunnels. There’ll be space for a kick-about football pitch and a flower meadow, a wildlife pond, a wood-fired bread oven and a silkworm project.

Everything grown will be cooked and eaten on site, mostly out in the garden and on the allotments, with a couple of portable gas stoves by the sheds. Never do they eat cold sandwiches…

As well as all the usual allotment produce, project members raise countless varieties of gourds, sweet little exotic onions, and greens like kovo – a small spring-like cabbage. “We end up growing a lot of different chilli peppers, some really hot ones,” says Sanja. “Everyone has a favourite depending on which part of the world they’re from.”

What many people don’t realise is that as an asylum seeker, you don’t have the right to work in the UK. Many have come here alone, and ahead lies a kind of limbo and loneliness. To be members of the Comfrey Project, participants must be referred by organisations such as the refugee services, mental health specialists, or their doctor.

Nadheera was an IT teacher at a secondary school in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s one-time capital, and her husband was an
accountant. “You give up your family, your identity, your career, everything,” she says in perfect English. “I miss home. My mother’s there. I miss my career, but this project is a wonderful place. I’ve been in the UK almost four years, and coming to the Comfrey Project for two-and-a-half years. Asylum seekers live with a lot of stress in their lives and this gives people the opportunity to make friends and learn new things from different cultures. It’s a wonderful part of many people’s lives.”

When the growing season really kicks in, horticulturist Sanja thinks around 250 people will share the facilities. “We’ll plant enough for people to come and have a meal three days a week. But a big part of what we’re about is welcoming others in the community too, people with learning disabilities, veterans, women’s groups, and just ordinary neighbours who want to volunteer and help out.”

It’s lunchtime. Everyone sits at a large table in the communal area to eat Nadheera’s biryani, cooked on a budget and absolutely delicious. Then at 1pm a group of men and women leave to get the bus to the project’s allotment in Walkergate. There’s an air of purpose about them. They’’ll be sowing seeds for the afternoon.

Syrian Imad has stayed on a while longer. He had to leave his wife and five children in Syria. He doesn’t cook – where he grew up boys were never taught – but he likes gardening. It’s awful being on your own, he says in broken English, and shows us pictures of his family. Watching him head off later to his own four walls, you really realise what a lifeline this project must be.


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