Chapter 10:      The International Garden




I)        Introduction



We realized that what we missed most from home were our gardens. We decided, why shouldn’t we have gardens here?”


International gardens are spaces in the community that residents turn into and make use of as gardens. The space is prepared collectively to be suitable for use as a garden (cleaning the area of waste, ploughing, fencing in, installing water etc.). Families or individuals are then assigned a plot, that they cultivate according to their own wishes and ideas. Communal space is reserved for a playground for children as well as for a leisure area to sit together and for common activities, events and festivities. The agreements and ‘rules’ of managing the garden are collectively discussed and developed.


International Gardens[84] were started in 1995 by a group of female Bosnian refugees in Göttingen, Germany. They were dissatisfied with their life as passive recipients of social welfare. They were looking for ways to take life back into their own hands, to feel useful and contribute to society. They wanted to take root in their new environment by actively participating in integration, rather than ‘waiting to be integrated’.


The group found partners who supported them in getting a piece of land from the municipality they could use for their idea. Collectively, using their skills and experience from home, they turned the vacant piece of land into a garden. The idea quickly sparked interest and attracted other families (refugee and local) as well as supportive partners and institutions. Today in Göttingen, more than 300 families from 20 nations cultivate 12000 square meters in five gardens to grow organic fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs.


Meanwhile the project has spread into other communities. In 2003 the foundation ‘Stiftung Interkultur’ was formed as a network of the 10 at that time existing international garden projects across Germany to respond to and support the numerous initiatives and requests for information. Meanwhile they have spread further, also into neighboring countries.[85]


An international garden is an ideal project for the temporary settlement as it creates public communal space in the open and facilitates communication and interaction and integration in an easy going way. International gardens counteract isolation and alienation in settlements and contribute to social cohesion.


Of all the elements of the temporary settlement, the international garden, like the Mother Center and the Neighborhood Academy, is one of the more easy ones to realize, because


it does not even depend on the temporary settlement itself, but could be started independently.

With its enormous potential for (non-verbal) communication and contact, international gardens contribute greatly to community building in newly developing settlements and to integration with the neighboring communities.




II)       A Place for Integration



International gardens are a ‘best practice’ for integrating refugees into host societies.

They literally develop common ground for families from diverse national, cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds to relate both to each other as well as to their new environment. They create a focus point in the community at large, for neighborly activities and exchanges. They also offer opportunities for economic development.


Finding the Language to communicate

International gardens create a common denominator: gardening and the cultivation of the earth. This becomes an understanding without words, or a ‘green language’, as it is called in Göttingen, that has the capacity to create bonding across social and cultural differences. At the same time, the motivation to communicate and learn the language of the host country is sparked. The lingua franca with which the international gardeners make themselves understood amongst each other is the host country language. As many migrant studies have shown, the motivation to learn the language of the host country is developed when there are opportunities to apply it in everyday life. The international gardens supply such opportunities.


Sowing the Seeds of Integration

One of the challenges of creating alive neighborhoods and social cohesion in communities is overcoming individualized and anonymous residential structures. The international gardens are community gardens. They are in the open and thus visible, they constitute animated public space. By participating, or by casually exchanging greetings or gardening tips in passing, by buying the produce or by visiting one of the garden festivities and events, residents get to know each other. People in the settlement get faces and names, have histories, become familiar.


Neighborhoods develop through common activities and common experiences. A community garden can create such moments of common experience. Activities that involve direct collaboration and have tangible results and benefits for the participants tend to be more successful in engaging residents to grow together as a community, than projects that state ‘communication’, ‘encounter ‘ or ‘integration’ as their explicit goal. Gardening and interacting with nature provide a common reference point, a focus for common interests and values, for the sharing of knowledge and experience, for co-operation and shared learning[86]. Not finding common reference points is what often can cause anonymity, indifference or hostility.


The love of nature has a universal quality, and can be transferred to any environment. Plants and nature are perceived as meaningful, as fulfilling and valuable in all cultures and traditions and can serve as a basis for commonality and understanding. Gardens are associated with and respond to the wish for beauty, for recreation, for health and healing as well as providing a basis to be productive, to contribute to subsistence and daily life needs. Growing organic and healthy food in the international gardens also stimulates the care for the environment.

Gardening tends to have a healing and therapeutic effect for people dealing with high levels of stress in their lives, as well as for refugees that have traumatic experiences to

cope with.


Creating Continuity in Migration

For refugees and migrants being able to link to own skills, traditions and resources and being able to actively contribute to and shape their new social environment, are important elements of integration, of taking root in their new life situation. The international gardens create bridges between the old life and the new. Plants that were familiar at home can be grown in the new earth, thus providing an element of continuity. Gardening techniques and traditions that are part of the agrarian and cultural heritage can be handed on in the new environment, thus providing elements of ownership as well as of sharing, that constitute key aspects in the process of redefining and rebuilding identity in the new context. Being able to contribute something meaningful, having something to offer are important elements of developing a sense of belonging, of ‘having arrived’, of taking part in and being part of the new country.


For refugees as well as for an increasing part of the migrant population that enter host countries as family members, these elements are not readily available through participation in the labor market. Retreat into ethnic communities, lack of contact with the host society, and lack of motivation to learn the host language are one of the results contemporary integration policy is challenged with. Neighborhoods have consequently become more important as focus for social contact and social integration. International gardens create low threshold and inclusive public space for encounter and contact in the neighborhood. Everyone can participate, whatever social, ethnic or religious background they may have, whether they are employed or not, whether they are young or old, whether they are man or woman, whether they are locals or migrants.


Gardening and preparing the harvested food provide opportunities for a culture of hospitality and an easy way to connect and communicate. Everywhere in the world people connect around food, sharing meals are one of the main rituals of social life in every society.




III)     What happens in International Gardens?



Since most people are interested in growing and cultivating plants they are familiar with, as well as in increasing their knowledge on gardening, the international gardens are characterized by a vivid exchange of plants, recipes, traditions and gardening tips from all corners of the world. Ingredients needed to prepare dishes from back home are planted, herbs and plants from other cultures are encountered and tried out. Stories, harvest rituals, ways of celebrating are shared. Information on what makes soil fertile and plants grow, on non-chemical ways of conservation and on different ways to prepare produce are exchanged.


Women play a leading role in the international gardens due to their traditionally strong position in subsistence production. Their competencies and skills in growing and processing food are respected. The garden constitutes public space that is inclusive of women and children. The participative decision making practiced in the international gardens supports the development of gender equality.


Activities in the international gardens expand according to the interests and skills of the people involved. Family activities and events like family brunches, collective preparing of food, and garden parties are regular events. Projects like a bicycle shop where bicycles are repaired are developed. In the winter gardening activities tend to be complimented by various artesian activities. People teach the arts and crafts they know from their homelands to each other. In Göttingen participants have built a stone oven for making bread and the various ways it is done in different cultures are shared. Building and repairing structures on the compound that are needed to harbor the garden tools, to provide shelter when it rains, to enhance the play opportunities of the children are regular winter activities.


The international gardens become focal points for the exchange of all kinds of information relevant to the participants, like rights and regulations, access to training and jobs, cultural customs, health issues, childcare or school issues.


The international gardens also initiate education programs of their own, like language courses, courses in literacy and in environmental awareness. This develops as a natural outcome of the activities in the garden. The motivation to learn the host language and develop literacy develops out of the interest to communicate with the other participants in the garden, and to participate in the new society. The motivation to understand the laws of nature develops out of the motivation to understand the cause and effect of ones own activity as well as out of the interest to grow healthy food.


For participants from the local population the gardens represent opportunities for recreation and social contact, for stress reduction, for exposure to cultural variety and diversity, for getting to know, understand and be at ease with the backgrounds and traditions of the migrant part of the population, and for learning about gardening and subsistence production.


For refugees and migrants many integration barriers are addressed in the context of the international gardens. This includes the lack of language skills, the lack of basic literary skills, as well as the lack of knowledge of rights and regulations, and of the labor market and skills requirements in the host country. Difficulties in transferring from a rural to an urban society, the need to adapt to a different cultural and social environment, restricted access to education, as well as healing trauma are issues that are dealt with in the communal life of the gardens.


The international gardens in Göttingen are intent on making the garden a site for intercultural living and learning. They make it a point to include a wide range of people from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. In order to avoid dominance of any given group they have created a quota system, which they follow when accepting new members, in order to keep a balance between nationalities and ethnic groups and give space for diversity.




IV)      Effects



Counteracting Isolation


The international gardens counteract isolation and anonymity in settlements. They are places that easily create a feeling of familiarity, a feeling of being at home.


“My daughter always said to me, mama, let us go outside. But I said, where should we go? Now it is different. Now we have the garden and the people of the garden. My daughter now has many aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. And I feel part of a community of people.”


“It is not that I don’t have friends. But it is different in the garden. There is a special atmosphere of familiarity and warmth there. I can come to the garden anyway I like, wearing sandals or with a soiled shirt.

That does not bother anybody. In the garden people feel free.”


“The gardens are a place to get physical exercise, a place to meet people, and a place to get contact with nature. I am unemployed. If you always stay at home you get ill. The gardens are a way to get out. I am outside the whole day, that is healthy. We laugh a lot together.”


“One family brings some self made cookies, another tea or juices made from our fruit harvest. We exchange recipes. At our festivities everybody cooks their own specialties, everyone brings their own music. We show each other our dances, but also our seeds, plants, herbs and fruits.”



Increasing social Capital


The international gardens provide a frame and arena where the skills and talents of elderly or of unemployed people can be reintegrated into community life. Knowledge is accumulated by learning from each other. When negotiating different interests and activities in the garden, handling misunderstandings and conflicts and co-operating in the daily requirements of running a garden, social competencies are developed and the social capital grows in the community.


“It is interesting to make contacts with many different cultures that I was not aware of before. I have learned so much, also about things I know and can show others. You get to meet many kinds of people and learn different ways of doing things. You learn to get along”


“There is a lot of knowledge in the international gardens. Some of us are illiterate, but they know a lot, for instance on ecological issues. This often stays tacit knowledge until it is asked for, until it is in demand. In the gardens we make it a point to ask for the knowledge of the participants, we make it a point that the participants themselves become aware of what they know.”



Solving Issues of daily Life


For migrants the international gardens help solve many issues of daily life.


“We can look back at many achievements. A majority of our migrant members now speak the local language, many people, especially women learned to read and write, many families were stabilized in the process of participation. We have created job possibilities for some. Many harvest their supply of fresh vegetables from their plots. Many local people visit the gardens and enjoy the friendly atmosphere there.”



Access to affordable healthy Food


For many families the gardens provide access to affordable healthy food. Organic and fresh food is not easily available or affordable in industrialized countries. Prices in health food stores are often twice as high as in regular shops.


“Our participants, guests and customers, are often attracted by the quality of our products. We are happy that we can provide healthy food for ourselves and our neighbors, that we do not need to buy our vegetables in the supermarket.”


“At home all our goods were fresh. Here there is a lot of poison in the food. At home everything in the market came fresh every morning. The chickens were still alive on the market. Good and wholesome food was standard. That is not the case here. Here it is expensive to have quality food. With our gardens we can live more like we did at home.”



Trust and mutual Respect


The international gardens make visible that migrants do not come with empty hands, but bring competencies and resources with them. This constitutes an important basis for developing trust and mutual respect and a change in attitude between new comers and the host society.


“Having something to offer, being able to give away products I have grown myself and made myself, gives me dignity, makes me feel more human, more integrated, more an equal part of this society. The gardens give me the opportunity to offer hospitality, that makes me feel more at home.”


“I did not realize until I became part of the garden that I had knowledge from my homeland about how to protect plants, about the fertility of earth, about ecologically sound cultivation practices and the healing powers of herbs and flowers that proved relevant and valuable in my new surroundings.”


“Who has decided to live here needs to take active part in shaping their surroundings, needs to contribute in developing possibilities and solutions. Everyone needs to do their part. With the gardens we did our part. There is no other way to integration. We cannot be refugees forever.”



Ecological Awareness


Ecological awareness often correlates with community awareness. People identify with collective goods such as air, water and earth when they feel part of a collective. People take care of their surroundings when they identify with where they live, when there is a sense of ownership and belonging, when they see a future for themselves and their families in the community they participate in. Planting and gardening are investments in the future, they support awareness of the importance of sustainability.


“In the gardens we talk about how to protect nature. We talk about how we relate to nature in our native traditions. We found out that the word for erosion is the same in the curd and the Amharic language. Literally translated it means ‘scratching off the face of the earth.’ The word for re-plantation means ‘Giving the earth her natural clothes back’. We share proverbs from home that teach how to protect and take care of nature.”


“The garden is a place of transformation. People associate peace, health and well-being with it. People learn to care about the earth, about each other. They start to invest in and care for their surroundings.”




V)       Implementation



How does one go about starting an international garden? What is needed to implement this project in the temporary settlement?





For an international garden to start you need initiators who want to make it their project. This can be one individual or a group of individuals. They can come from inside the temporary settlement or from the surrounding communities. Their qualification lies in enthusiasm for the idea, some knowledge in gardening, organizing talents, and most of all the capacity to encourage, motivate and support self confidence in others. Openness to diversity, intercultural experience and understanding of cultural differences in customs, traditions, ways of expressing opinions and emotions as well as competence in problem solving and conflict mediation are further important qualities for initiators. Where possible, it is recommended that initiators consist of both men and women to allow for gender homogenous sub groups which in some cultures are an important prerequisite. Ideally the group should be composed of migrants as well as locals.



Land, Partners and Sponsors


The first task is to negotiate a suitable piece of land in the area as well as sponsors for the project. An area of about 1500 square meters is a good size to start an international garden. The individual or family plots should have the size of about 40 square meters. Depending on when the international garden starts, the beginning investment costs could be funded from the loans division of the temporary settlement or from outside sponsors. Involving partners and sponsors from the surrounding communities and involving the developers (who could for instance supply the machines to prepare the garden grounds) is a good way to gain support from the environment for the Nest! and to start the integration of the temporary settlement into the development process.



Involving Participants


Involving participants (from inside the temporary settlement as well as from the adjacent communities and from the developing new neighborhood) should begin right at the start. Especially for the preliminary work of preparing the plots for gardening it is important to include the participants as much as possible. Experience shows that the identification with a project is higher the more participants were involved in the beginning stages, and the more they contributed to building up the basic infrastructure.



Basic Infrastructure


The basic infrastructure that needs to be put into place involves the preparation of the plot for gardening. This includes work like cleaning, shifting earth, fencing, improving the quality of the ground, fertilizing, maybe digging more ditches, setting up an entrance and path-ways, planting trees and hedges, solving the question of access to water as well as access to electricity, building or renting toilets, building a playground, a shelter against rain, a shed for tools, building garden furniture, as well as negotiating accident insurance and fire insurances.


Keeping an open area for group events, celebrations and meetings is essential.

The whole area should not be cultivated at once. Starting small and gradually expanding step by step in a transparent and manageable way, taking the whole group along, is the best way to go. This also applies to the individual plots where people are encouraged to start in one corner and gradually in their own timing cultivate their whole plot.





To implement the international garden a basic start up investment is needed. The budget includes posts for renting machines for planifying the plot, digging a well, or setting up a toilet, as well as for purchasing gardening tools, benches, material for the sheds and fences, equipment for the playground, as well as tools[87]  for wood and stone work. Two (part time) co-ordinators, preferably a woman and a man should be recruited, paid with Local Currency, to support the initiation as well as the on-going process in the international garden.





The international gardens typically bring together different biographies, languages, religions and cultures. To create a common vision as well as continuous co-operation requires discussing and setting up a framework of agreements that all participants adhere to. An important agreement to make the international garden work, is that the project is kept politically and religiously neutral. All political or ethnic positions, arguments and conflicts need to be kept outside of the garden.


Another crucial basic agreement is that the common language in the international garden, is the language of the host country. Other agreements can address goals of the project, how problems or conflicts in the group are to be solved or what values like respect, tolerance, co-operation the project is to be based on and should reflect.



Group Process


Taking time and attention for group discussions and the group process is very important. How the land should be cleaned and prepared, how the plots should be divided among the participants, what rules should be set up,  and what should be the rights and duties of the participants constitute important themes for collective debate and decision making. How often to have meetings, what projects should be started, what events and celebrations should be planned as well as what trainings should be conducted also need to be widely discussed among the participants and constitute a continuous element of group building and group cohesion. Differences in cultural attitudes and values need to be addressed in this process and carefully negotiated. Starting with a debate on visions and values is a good way to find common ground and consolidate group identity.





From the start the project should seek to find and build partnerships with supporting groups and institutions in the area as well as in the municipality at large. International gardens are a project with a large potential for partnership building and networking. Partners can be found in local gardening or citizens associations, ecological groups, women’s groups, asylum organizations, migrant organizations, churches, universities, housing corporations, developers, the media, as well as with local authorities and institutions. Such partnerships can form a good basis to develop intercultural dialogs and debates on issues of integration. It is important to have partners right from the start that support the international garden: financially, with subject related knowledge and technical assistance as well as with the capacity and willingness to open doors for institutional dialog and change. The task of identifying and contacting supporting partners is a vital one.



Scenario for an International Garden Schuytgraaf


The International Garden in Schuytgraaf consists of two parts, an international garden, in which plots are rented out to residents of the temporary settlement, as well as of Schuytgraaf and the neighboring communities and a public garden space for picnics and barbecues, including an herb garden, which is open to the general public to harvest herbs. Opportunity is also given for some plots to be entertained by schools in the neighborhood for gardening projects with children.


Each part of the International Garden has 1500 square meters. The public part consists mainly of a field of grass and a play area for children. This area also includes a barbecue space and an herb garden. The area for individual garden plots is planned for 30 plots, of 40 square meters each. These are rented out on a yearly basis. Renters have the opportunity of earning back their rent by contributing to the maintenance of the garden paths as well as the public garden area including the herb garden.




Education and Training


Training programs as well as study visits and excursions can greatly support the project. Themes include garden architecture, education in (ecological) gardening like differentiating mushrooms, making compost, or recycling waste as well as language and literacy courses, or trainings in various handicrafts. These trainings can be offered both by participants as well as by outside experts and are developed as part of the Nest! Neighborhood Academy.



Conflict Mediation


The international gardens are not a conflict free zone. Conflicts are to be expected as a regular aspect of the work. By participating in the gardens, however, participants engage in sensitive and culturally appropriate ways of how to handle conflicts in everyday life. Positive conflict solving is an important element of the process, that can bond the participants stronger together and can greatly contribute to the success of the project. Practicing a positive attitude towards conflicts and examining and trying out different conflict solving techniques, which participants can contribute from their traditions as well as which can be introduced through workshops and trainings in cooperation with the Neighborhood Academy constitute important aspects of the social climate and culture of the international gardens.



Economic Development


The international gardens include strategies for economic development. In addition to the economic benefit participating families have by harvesting food for their own consumption, marketing strategies are developed to set up a network for selling plants and produce in the new settlement and in the region as well as to partnering groups and organizations. This can be enhanced by setting up green houses on the terrain. The project involves a lot of potential for the creation of small businesses: for instance starting a catering service for churches, schools, municipal agencies, and private parties, setting up a repair shop for garden tools and agricultural machines or creating a gardening service to take care of the gardens of double income families in the new settlement, who don’t have much time to tend to their gardens.



Growing Roots in the new Settlement


With its potential for initiating both social as well as economic community development the international garden constitutes one of the key elements of the temporary settlement. It is also one of the projects with a high chance of being taken over as a community project in the permanent settlement after the temporary settlement is over, since it includes not only the pioneers but integrates participants from the newly developing neighborhood as well as from the adjacent communities from the start.


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