When Sophie and I moved to The Grange in 2011 we knew we wanted to find a way to live a more sustainable life of our own – but also not to block out the massive changes and terrible suffering happening around the world. Sometimes coming face to face with some of that pain is difficult but if we can help in even a tiny way at least we are doing something.
Last week we welcomed several members from Room to Heal on a week long therapeutic retreat and some of the pain and suffering that results from persecution and torture literally came home to us. If you had been with us one night last week you would have seen 12 people from all over the world sharing food, cooking, playing music and games and learning new skills. However if you had stayed a little longer you might have started to hear tiny pieces of the fragments that make up a broken life – stories of being trafficked into slavery, 18 years spent in destitution waiting to find out if you are allowed to stay in this country, appalling tales of domestic abuse, dead family members, families left behind. It is hard to hear some of these stories but it also fires us up to want to do more.
The people staying with us last week are amazing. They have survived some of the worst that humanity can throw at each other and yet they somehow still have their inner fires burning. They still have the strength to hold on to, and share, their passions, skills and ideas. We can learn so much from them.
During last week’s retreat I led a walk around the beautiful arboretum at Lynford Hall in Mundford where we explored some of the ethics and principles of permaculture and thought about what we can learn from nature. Some of the discussions from that day have given me the energy I needed to re-visit an idea for a permaculture course designed specifically for asylum seekers and I am now developing this with the help of Mary Raphaely who is a psychotherapist and one of The Grange Elders. I am really excited about hopefully piloting a course provisionally called Growing Resilience next year.
Permaculturists and refugees have a huge amount to offer to each other. Permaculturists embrace the principle of ‘using and valuing diversity’ and can learn so much from the diverse cultures and wisdom of refugees. Refugees are displaced from their land and often lack connections and community and permaculturists can offer that in spades.
The Grange is a family home and smallholding in West Norfolk where we welcome people from all over the world and help them build their resilience. A lot of the people who visit us have fled persecution and torture and are seeking asylum in the UK. Earlier this year, we were privileged to become the first recipient of the 'Home of Sanctuary' award from the City of Sanctuary network.
With the current massive movement of people into Europe, and the increased media interest, the small City of Sanctuary team has been inundated over the last few weeks with phone calls and e-mails from people wanting to know how they can open their own homes to asylum seekers - and from groups wanting to create a City of Sanctuary group in their own towns and cities. It is wonderful to hear that so many people are ready to support people fleeing persecution and we would be very happy to talk to anyone who would find it interesting to learn from our experience. For now, here are a few thoughts from three years of welcoming asylum seekers into our home.
1. It is often magical... - A little while ago I was sat in the kitchen playing Connect 4 with a young man from Cameroon. When I looked up and then walked around the house I found a Mauritian lady and a Burundian man cooking, a Burmese man playing guitar in the living room and an English member of staff playing table-tennis with a Sri Lankan in another room. When we moved to West Norfolk from Oxford 4 years ago and our daughter was born a year later we worried she wouldn't grow up with the diversity that cities like Oxford can offer but in our house that is really not an issue! Every week the three of us are learning so much from people from around the world - about their lives, their cooking, their music, their culture. Magical.
2. ...but it can be really hard - A lot of people have contacted us recently saying they want to welcome asylum seekers into their homes and we always support this but encourage people to think really carefully about the challenges and make sure they have the necessary support in place. Living communally with anyone has it challenges, and when the person staying might be destitute and experiencing physical and emotional trauma it can be even more challenging. This is one of many reasons we have chosen to work with partners who offer the ongoing support to members that we can't offer. What would you do if someone came to stay with you for a week but then didn't want to leave? Could you push them out and back to life on the streets? What do you do when someone starts telling you in detail about the torture they suffered and looks to you for emotional support?
3. Make sure you have support - Linked to point 2, it is crucial to know where you are going to get support from when you need it. Secondary trauma is a very real issue and you may well find you are affected more than you expect by having people dealing with trauma living in your home. Because we host so many people we receive clinical supervision once per month which we find vital and we have a number of psychotherapists (including those on our Elders group) we can call on if we need more help. You should also link with groups in your local area who can offer support. If you are looking to host people for a short time groups like the Boaz Trust in Manchester and LASSN in Leeds are fantastic and can ensure people have somewhere to go after they have been with you.
4. Trust is vital and reciprocated - One thing people often say to us is how much it means to them to be trusted. Many people spend years fleeing persecution and in the asylum system in the UK where they feel no-one trusts them and they can't trust anyone. To suddenly be openly welcomed into a family home is a massive thing and means a lot. What we find is this trust is reciprocated completely. We have had hundreds of people staying with us over the last three years and we don't think we can point to a single incident of anything being stolen or wilfully damaged. People have huge respect for us and for each other and really do become part of the family whilst they are here.
5. Have realistic expectations - We run a 10 acre smallholding and a lot of people who find out what we do assume that when refugees come here they put in a lot of work on the land. Some do but the reality is that for most people they just need a break from the harsh realities of daily life and they are not physically or emotionally ready to work hard whilst they are here. We always offer people the option to be involved but are also more than happy if they just need to rest in bed all day or read a book or relax in other ways.
6. Other ways to help - If you feel that for any reason welcoming asylum seekers into your home is not right for you there are lots of other ways to help. City of Sanctuary have this useful article linking to their local groups. Lots of charities are very stretched at the moment responding to the crisis so consider raising money to donate to groups such as Doctors of the World through their Refugee Crisis appeal.
We love what we do and feel hugely privileged but it definitely does have challenges. For any advice or ideas do get in touch with us through our web site at www.thegrangenorfolk.org.uk.
Ben Margolis (Co-founder of The Grange)
The Grange is a family home and smallholding in West Norfolk, England, which opens its doors to people from near and far to give them opportunities to build their own resilience.
In particular we welcome people who have survived torture and extreme violence and those fleeing persecution.
The small family living permanently at The Grange (see photo) are Ben and Sophie and their daughter Orianna. In this blog we hope to share some of the stories of the amazing people who come here - as much as possible through their own words. We will also share our own thoughts and views on things happening around the world particularly in relation to refugees and to permaculture. We look forward to hearing from you and hope you find the blog interesting.
In love and peace
Sophie North and Ben Margolis