Community garden in Bensham which gives refugees ‘a safe place’ reopens after Covid-19 closure

A community garden which has been a lifeline to refugees has opened its gates again for the first time in two years.

On Friday, May 13, the garden volunteers were ‘overjoyed’ to announce the official reopening of the garden at Windmill Hills Centre in Bensham, Gateshead, after two years of restricted access due to the pandemic and criminal damage to their polytunnel last spring.

The opening event featured the unveiling of a ‘wonderful’ community mosaic, by the “We Stand Together” project, with participants and artist Emma Sheridan from the local charity GemArts. They collaborated with The Comfrey Project, a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) that primarily supports refugees and people seeking asylum to improve their quality of life through nature-based, creative and learning activities.

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Eleni Venaki, the director of the Comfrey Project said: “Now more than ever refugees and people seeking asylum need support for their health and wellbeing, following the dire effects of the pandemic and the cost of living increase.

“It is therefore great to once again be open at full capacity and be able to much-needed respite and a sense of belonging to those fleeing conflict and persecution, including, more recently, people affected by the devastating events in Afghanistan and Ukraine. We are hopeful that compassion and common sense will prevail and we are more determined than ever to fight for refugee rights.

A community garden has re-opened at the Windmill Hills Centre in Bensham for refugees
A community garden has re-opened at the Windmill Hills Centre in Bensham for refugees

“The positive responses to our appeal demonstrate the generosity and welcome of the local community to displaced people seeking sanctuary, and we are looking forward to being able to provide once again a safe and welcoming space for refugees and people seeking asylum in the area.

“We provide a safe, welcoming place for people who have fled conflict and persecution to improve their physical and mental wellbeing, develop new skills, and put down roots in their new community.”

A volunteer at The Comfrey Project, Reza said: “I joined Comfrey Project in 2016. The Comfrey Project for me is life. We come to join different nationalities, and share cultures, experiences and languages. We are gardening together, helping the environment, sharing skills to help with gardening, sowing seeds, and caring for plants.

“This place makes me feel happy. The Comfrey Project for me is health, connection with community and nature, and environment. People will come and I see their faces are tired after they leave here, I see they feel happy and refreshed. Gardens and nature are for all humanity.”

A community garden for refugees in Bensham, Gateshead
A community garden for refugees in Bensham, Gateshead

Another volunteer, Milton said: “This is my first year joining the garden. I feel good because I am connecting with plants. I love nature and I love to meet people from all other countries. This is wonderful for me to know about gardening. I like being part of making the garden beautiful.”

The garden lost their original polytunnel to vandalism and theft on two separate occasions in 2021. The repairs to the polytunnel were made possible by an ‘incredibly generous’ response from the community to their Helping Hands fundraising campaign, which raised over £4,500, more than double the target amount set originally.

They were ‘delighted’ to have Labour Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, cut the ribbon on their now refurbished polytunnel. He said: “Gateshead and Gateshead Council have a proud history of welcoming refugees and people seeking asylum.

“Places like the Comfrey Project are vital for our local community. It’s great to have a facility like this in the centre of Gateshead where people can get together, and I know how welcoming the Comfrey Project has been to members of the wider community, and that it is a source of great pride for the refugee volunteers here.

“The communities who come here can integrate faster because, to use gardening metaphors, they can put down roots in Gateshead and cultivate links with the wider community. Through gardening, volunteering, and creative activities all the communities find they have a shared language

“The pandemic has shown that the refugee community is one of the most vulnerable communities and it’s great to have the Comfrey Project back and in a position to offer its activities again. So today I’m delighted to join them in celebrating the reopening of the gardens and polytunnel, meaning that the Comfrey Project’s wonderful work can resume.”

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