February 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Planting hope

By Zoë Morrison
A community gardening program is bringing hope to asylum seekers

On a summer’s morning in Melbourne the weather has become so extremely hot and windy it feels as if the apocalypse has arrived. But despite such hostile conditions, at Baptcare Sanctuary – a supported accommodation service for asylum seekers who have experienced homelessness – they’re planting new gardens.

Residents are gardening alongside Sherry Maddock, a community gardener from Lexington, Kentucky, who started the social enterprise Planted Places when she and her family moved into an apartment in Melbourne’s CBD. With nowhere to garden, they began growing things in a semi-basement owned by the Collins Street Baptist Church. There was very little light in this space: the floor is a metre underground, and the only window is a strip in the ceiling at one far end. Using only existing lighting and some tracking lights salvaged from a skip, they now have hundreds of indoor plants thriving here, including many that are being propagated for others. “We thought, if we can figure this out and pioneer it, it will be easier for someone else.” They run workshops in what is now called The Green Room, and free community lunches, including for asylum seekers.

Maddock’s gardens have a tendency to spread. This one crept up the basement stairs in pots. Plants appeared in the offices above, and in the cafe on the church’s verandah. Pots of gardenias bloomed in the alley next door, perfuming the shade between the high-rise blocks. “We put plants everywhere we could,” says Maddock, “and people came to ask for more.”

Baptcare Sanctuary asked Maddock for a gardening program at their residential facility for unaccompanied male asylum seekers in Brunswick, north of the city. Residents chose three courtyards at the former nursing home to replant. One is to become a flowering Australian native garden and the other two will be food-producing spaces. Because of the weather, planting has started early. Through a corridor window I see a coronet of yellow kangaroo paw and a spray of red bottle-brush. Through another, a young fig tree, citrus saplings already in bloom and sweet potato seedlings lying low to the wettened ground. Ambroise, a doctor in the country he’s fled, is pulling a wheelie bin full of shovels down the corridor. Nasir is watching sceptically from behind the glass. “Vegetables do not interest me,” he says. He prefers roses. “Also, these gardens will not work. No one will look after them, no one will water them.” Outside, Maddock is bent over double, piling on the mulch.

These men are among thousands of people caught in what could be called a humanitarian crisis occurring on mainland Australia. Asylum seekers living in the community while awaiting the outcome of their application for a protection visa or humanitarian claim are experiencing unprecedented levels of homelessness, destitution and despair. Experts who have worked for decades in the field say their situation is now the worst it has ever been.

A recent contributing factor to this crisis is the federal government’s cuts to its Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS), a program for asylum seekers on bridging visas who are unable to support themselves. It provides a “living allowance” that’s even less than Newstart, vital casework, torture and trauma counselling, and sometimes subsidised medication. The cuts to the SRSS program have been made by drastically tightening eligibility criteria. In 2018, 13,299 asylum seekers were receiving SRSS payments; after the rollout of cuts is completed this year, it’s expected there will be fewer than 5000 recipients, leaving more than 7500 vulnerable people without support, living mostly in Melbourne and Sydney. Research by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) in 2018 found that 79 per cent of people receiving the payment were at risk of homelessness if they lost it.

The charities supporting asylum seekers living in the community are experiencing levels of demand never seen before. In August 2018, demand rose to 10 to 20 per cent greater than any peak period in the past. Rebecca Eckard, director of policy and research at RCOA, says that demand had at least doubled by the end of 2019. The nature of what is needed has also changed. In the past, a family might have required financial assistance to cover a fortnight’s rent; now it’s more likely they’ve been evicted and need emergency accommodation that night. The Victorian state government pledged a crisis ­support payment of $3 million in September 2019, but Eckard says “the safety net is porous and can only last for so long”.

People are being exited from the SRSS onto nothing. Parents must decide how to feed their family, which usually means adults skip meals. Eckard knows of a mother who no longer sends her children to school because there is nothing to put in their lunch boxes (families with school-age children are one of the groups cut from the SRSS). Women asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence cannot access many relevant services due to their immigration status, and now they’re finding it very difficult to access the SRSS. Eckard says it points to “a systemic failure”.

Financial support through the SRSS is at the discretion of Home Affairs. People appealing against a negative decision on their application can face years of destitution with no access to financial support and restricted services. Even when a person is granted refugee status, if they arrived by boat they will only be given a Temporary Protection Visa or a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa and will not be eligible for family reunion. When their visa expires, everything is assessed again. The process is extraordinarily punitive. It is also excruciatingly slow, opaque, complex, variable and unpredictable. To give just one example, visa applications from people fleeing Afghanistan used to be approved at a rate of 80 per cent; they are now being denied at a rate of 80 per cent, despite little evidence the region is safer.

Ruth Barr, a casework coordinator at Baptcare Sanctuary, describes the effect of the visa-processing system on the people living at the residential facility as a “big shadow over everyone”. Barr says the system influences the applicants’ mood, their mental health, their ability to function. “It robs people of the kind of attention to tasks and optimism that you and I have, because our citizenship is assured.”

An indicator of the crisis is the recent increase of asylum seekers taking their own lives. While noting that this data is provisional and approximate, Professor Nicholas Procter, Leader of the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Research Group at the University of South Australia, confirms that the 2019 suicide rate for asylum seekers (both in the community and in offshore detention) is 26 per 100,000 (compared to a rate of 9 per 100,000 in the general population). “Even as an approximate we are very concerned, as in 2018 the age-specific rate for asylum seekers was 18.7 per 100,000.” Research by Dr Miriam Posselt, who is part of Procter’s team, has found the main drivers of this suicide rate are the immigration process and visa uncertainty, social isolation and separation from family, and the ongoing, relentless nature of these experiences. An effective therapeutic approach is difficult because, Procter says, “many of the things we would normally try to do to support [suicidal] people are really difficult to put into place with people who have got such excruciating uncertainty”.

A psychologist (who cannot be named), employed by the Australian government on Nauru between 2017 and 2018, witnessed the deterioration in mental health of her clients and concluded in a written document: “I do not believe that it’s possible to achieve a state of ‘mental health’ in a context of prevailing and overwhelming injustice … The only appropriate ‘treatment’ is to afford people opportunity for a life of dignity and freedom of choice. To acknowledge humanity and reinstate agency.”

Before the Brunswick project, Baptcare Sanctuary asked Planted Places for a “positive mental-health culture” project at its nearby Preston facility in 2018. Maddock placed shade-loving plants in corridors and communal areas. She also offered residents pot plants for their rooms. Only a small group attended her plant-care sessions, but when she left pot plants behind they were always gone when she returned. The plants were having a silent effect, which Maddock calls “plant impact”.

Residents began bringing their pot plants to show her when she visited, pointing out a new green shoot, celebrating the plant thriving under their care, or expressing concern about the appearance of leaf spot and eagerly troubleshooting solutions. “I would see a person moving outside of their inner world, which was a dark, enfolding place, to be actively caring for a plant,” Maddock says.

The project was “a revelation”, says Barr. At its completion, residents said: “I will come out of myself because the plant needs me”; “I want to keep my plant alive and I want to keep myself alive”; “When my hands touched the soil, I woke up.”

Baptcare Sanctuary asked for a repeat in Brunswick, but this was a different proposition. An existing grant stipulated ambitious food-producing gardens in the tricky courtyard spaces. Only a few residents attended the planning sessions. When the old gardens were cleared, resident Nasir became upset. Three rose bushes had been removed from the courtyard near his room. He loved those rose bushes, it turned out. He looked at them every day and looked forward to them blooming every year. “What was there was now gone,” says Maddock. “What was coming was not yet visible … I don’t know that I would have ever recommended this way of doing it.” But Barr says the incident “affirmed everything Sherry [Maddock] had been saying about the restorative power of plants”. Fortunately, the rose bushes had been saved and were replanted in another courtyard. The gardening resumed.

Procter relates Maddock’s work to research on the mental-health benefits of community gardening, but also to the positive connections people can form with plant life, and, at a deeper level, by giving sustenance to another. “My sense,” says Maddock, “is that the plant is hosting everything we do.”

In Brunswick, the gardening’s done; it’s time for lunch. Amazingly, a resident has prepared a vegetarian feast – platters of savoury pastries, salads, greens – using food from the food bank supplemented with his own scarce resources. “When he cooks, he feels less nervous,” Yannik, another resident, explains. Afterwards, Yannik offers to show me the plants in his room. On the windowsill are pots of sansevieria that he planted with Maddock in The Green Room. There are more in the corridor outside his door. Further down are some magnificent, big-leaved pot plants: he salvaged these from the old gardens when they were cleared. “People did not understand what I was doing, what I wanted them for, but Sherry did.” Further still, by the entrance, is a set of shelves holding rows of wine glasses filled with shoots of golden pothos. “I did this so other people would know what is possible,” Yannik says.

I seek out Nasir, the man who loves roses, and ask him to show me where the three rose bushes have been replanted. He tells me how bad the roses are looking (they were heavily pruned when transplanted). He points out that their new position is not close to his room. He has fake roses in his room, he tells me, red ones.

At lunch, Nasir refused to sit at the table. Everyone was urging him to; he said he preferred to stand. But when their attention moved elsewhere, I noticed that he sat down next to Sherry Maddock. I also noticed, when he was reaching out his arm, that he had two roses, in full bloom, tattooed on his forearm.


The names of asylum seekers have been changed.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Victorian state government's pledge in September 2019 was a crisis ­support payment of $300 million. The pledge is $3 million.

Zoë Morrison

Zoë Morrison is the author of the novel Music and Freedom.

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