Refugees, Rebirth and Roots

I work, part-time, as South Wales Engagement Officer for Coed Cadw. Here is something I felt moved to write for their staff intranet:

Cefn Ila is a small country estate comprising a Victorian country house, arboretum, walled garden and orchard. After being given to the local authority  the house was converted to a maternity hospital. Sadly, in 1973, the house burned down. The burnt out building was reduced to its foundations, the arboretum, walled garden and orchard became choked with brambles and rhododendron. This neglect lasted until 2007 when it was purchased by Coed Cadw, the Woodland Trust in Wales.

An HLF grant, plus the Plant! project (which plants a tree in Wales and Uganda for every child born, or adopted, in Wales since 2008) has breathed new life into this neglected corner of Monmouthshire. It is now a joy to visit. The newly-planted Plant! areas are now 10 years old and contain a rich mix of native broadleaves. Their branches are loud with the chatter of small birds. The orchard, walled garden and arboretum, thanks to our wonderful volunteer working group, have emerged from the strangle hold of bramble, rhododendron and laurel.

In a very real sense Cefn Ila , where so many local people were born, has itself been reborn.

So what better place to bring a group of people who have been torn from their familial and national roots? Who have experienced significant trauma and tragedy in their attempt to make a better life for themselves and their families? People whose very lives are undergoing a rebirth in the UK.

I made contact with The Gap, a charity in Newport, South Wales, who support refugees and asylum seekers. My initial aim was, thanks to the HLF funding, to offer to cover the cost of a couple of minibuses and some food to enable them to bring people to gain some respite from their difficult lives, through having a picnic in a beautiful setting. What I got was much more.

On the June 1 2018 I welcomed 18 refugees and 2 charity staff to Cefn Ila. The weather was dry but the sky held that humid threat of rain that we were getting so much of at the time. Luckily the clouds held their breath.

My main contact for the group was George, a Ugandan national who has been in the UK for some years now and is about to study for his Masters at Bristol University. George and I had a preliminary visit a couple of weeks before and he was particularly thrilled with the link between the Plant! project and his home country. It is quite a thing to be able to point to ten year old woodland of approximately 20,000 trees and say “for every tree you see here there is one in your home country”. It brought home to me the power of Plant! (a Welsh Government initiative in partnership with Coed Cadw, Natural Resources Wales and The Size of Wales).

I am not experienced in working with refugees so was not sure what to expect but as George gathered the group together I saw before me a smiling group of faces. Young, not so young. Single, families. Male, female. African and Asian.

After introducing myself and welcoming them to Cefn Ila we set off, firstly through the newly (ten year old) planted area. As we walked we chatted about the trees we were seeing. I was able, for the first time in my job, to put into practice my tree ID skills and I concentrated on just teaching them the names of the major species oak, ash, hazel, willow, birch. I found interest levels raised when I spoke about the use of wood in different contexts: wattle, baskets, medicines, timber for construction etc.

As we came upon the outdoor musical instruments (two vertical tree trunks chainsawed to form tonal drums, plus a vertical tubular xylophone) we had some fun with sound in the woodland.

Continuing our walk through the Plant! area gave us plenty of time for chat. Some of the group started, unbeknownst to me, to pick unripe berries from the cherry trees. This was an unforeseen risk! I had to stop the group and have a few words to explain why we don’t pick and eat anything that looks tasty. This led into an interesting discussion about what to eat in nature and what not to eat. But for the purposes of this visit I asked them not to forage. Speaking to one of the charity staff later he explained that many refugees would forage in their home countries but also that they would have foraged, out of necessity, on their individual perilous journeys across Africa/Asia and Europe to get to the UK. Some of the group would have walked across Saharan Africa, floated across the Mediterranean on a dinghy to Italy and then walked from Italy to Calais where they would have lived in the “Jungle”. These are sobering facts for me, as a comfortable, white, housed, employed, European.

Eventually we reached the orchard. This gave me the opportunity to talk to them about the history of the estate. I was fascinated by a young refugee from Iran who animatedly told me his grandfather had an orchard and would harvest cherries.

For lunch we stopped inside the walled garden, where we chatted about different languages and words. We worked out that, in a group of 18 refugees, there were 19 languages spoken! From Pashtun to Urdu. 20 if you included my Welsh.

Arabic seemed to be one language which connected several countries and I was amazed to learn that the Arabic word for “orange” (the fruit) is “Portugal”. Apparently it was introduced to Arab-speaking countries by Portugese sailors.

We moved on from the walled garden to the arboretum where I hoped to engage my group in discussing trees from around the world. That aspect of it didn’t go as well as expected as it was difficult to access the arboretum as the warm Spring had encouraged a carpet of nettles. But there was genuine interest in the 140 year old Redwoods and Cedars. The more recently-planted Wollemi Pine was a focus of interest as I explained how this “living fossil” came to be discovered. That amazing story can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wollemia

Finally arriving back at the car park I had more interaction with a lady from Malaysia who told me of the different ways she would use Sweet Chestnut, as their mini buses were parked beneath a decent specimen.

I hadn’t planned to join this group on their visit. I was only going to welcome them and point them in the right direction. My decision, on the hoof, to stay with them and show them Cefn Ila in detail was one of my better ones. I met a diverse group of people from a diverse range of countries, all unified by a desire to make a better life. The Woodland Trust has a part to play in showing those traumatised by war/economic failure/civil disturbance (and their subsequent journeys, fraught with hardship, danger and death) that they can connect with woods and trees and find peace amongst them. Then they can put down roots…

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One thought on “Refugees, Rebirth and Roots

  1. That was a great read Havard, thank you. I’ve worked lots with children in woodland, but never refugees, and now you’ve made me think I should.

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