Having fled trauma in their home countries, women in Glasgow have created a garden refuge with the help of RHS Community Outreach
Young Saheliya, a mental health support charity for black and minority ethnic women and girls aged 12–25 is situated on a busy road heading north out of Glasgow city centre. It is the tail end of summer 2017 and the gardeners – 20 or so young women – laugh, sing and chat in small groups among bee-friendly perennials and tough, scented annuals that they have grown from seed. The gardening group is barely a season old, but their connection to one another and to the space they care for together is clear to see.
Many of the young women here have fled various types of abuse in their home countries. Girls are particularly vulnerable in parts of East Africa, where ongoing socio-economic and political crises have borne widespread domestic violence and exploitation. For many of the gardeners, leaving their home countries was a long and arduous journey, with stays in areas of conflict and perilous boat journeys.
Once in the UK, they were thrust into the bureaucratic system to assess their needs and eligibility – a complex process that, for those already traumatised and limited by cultural and language barriers, has led to increased anxiety.
Visiting the Young Saheliya centre was a turning point for several of the girls, who had previously ventured to only one or two places outside their new homes since arriving in Glasgow. The organisers report how gardening has helped these women develop a new sense of confidence.
For Samira, a 17-year-old Eritrean, gardening has been empowering. ‘It’s made me feel important,’ she says. ‘I feel like I am contributing to this place because I am helping the environment, and it is also a stress relief – it makes me feel calm.’
The space itself, a former car park, is small, but no area within its 48sq m (57sq yd) perimeter is wasted. Nasturtiums spill from wooden planters that edge the fence among sunflowers, salvias and Californian poppies, while bold-flowered marigolds and salad leaves circle photinias in former council planters that have been painted a cheerful yellow.
'Some of the young women were previously too scared to even go outside... they went on to actually enjoy being outdoors in a relatively short space of time.'
The 12-week project to create the garden began with skills sessions and creative workshops led by Angela Smith, RHS Community Outreach Advisor. ‘Angela encouraged us to think big,’ says Young Saheliya co-ordinator Ariana Zane, ‘One of the young people suggested the idea of having a small seating area within the garden and Angela said, ‘‘Of course we can do that”. I think that so much has happened to these young women that they needed to do something positive.’
The transformation Ariana has witnessed this summer in the previously disused space outside the organisation’s centre, as well as in the young women who took part in weekly gardening sessions, has been impressive. ‘We saw huge progress in terms of their mental health and wellbeing,’ she says. ‘Some of the young women were previously too scared to even go outside, so it really was a massive step for them to start working on this project, and they went on to actually enjoy being outdoors in a relatively short space of time.’
For many of the women the gardening sessions were the only structure they might have in their lives. ‘They are generally not working or in education, which has massive implications for self esteem and what they think they can do,’ says Ariana. ‘I think it’s been beneficial for them to have a focus, and somewhere to spend time where they don’t have to think about how they are going to make ends meet, or their immigration status.’
The project was not without setbacks: the workshops needed interpreters and creativity to overcome language barriers; the site itself was challenging; some of their tools were stolen at one point; and ‘every time we were out, it seemed to be raining,’ says Angela. ‘But it was amazing. Despite these things, everyone who worked on the project, including a visiting photographer, had to be female, so it felt like girl power – all supporting each other.’
‘Creating the garden has required persistence from all of the girls involved,’ Ariana says, ‘but once they could see the impact they were having and the space changing, it gave them a sense of ownership. They are so proud of what they have created.’ It has also led to new friendships and a sense of community between the young women themselves – a key step in trauma rehabilitation.
That the resulting space is theirs to enjoy is a fitting reward for their labour. And as for that seating area that was requested at the outset? Thanks to Glasgow Wood Recycling, it has become a multipurpose focal point with seating for up to 15. The reclaimed timber slats of the table hug a central alder, planted for its ability to withstand the poor growing conditions of the site. A row of bright edibles – lettuce, sage, chives and rosemary – are set into a deep, purpose built container that runs down the middle of the table. The ground below is planted with shade-loving ferns, while the table’s short edges are formed from small gabion walls and salvaged materials to serve as a home for smaller wildlife.
It seems this unlikely pocket of green will be a sanctuary for more than just these young women. ‘We’ve got loads of ideas,’ says Ariana. ‘Next year, we can run another gardening project in the new garden and really make the most of it.’