Birmingham: Refugees grow vegetables in lockdown

  • Mauricio Silva

The Columban Intereligious Dialogue Coordinator, Mauricio Silva, explains how lockdown is affecting the residents at Fatima House, a house for refugees in Birmingham.

Over the past seven weeks the women have continued to be sheltered in the house whilst trying to make sense of the health crisis. The fact that the residents have not secured asylum support before the lockdown was introduced meant that they could not avail of the accommodation and support offered elsewhere. They have had to stay in the house during the lockdown period. Over the weeks, as the project coordinator, I have regularly attended the house to share important national information with them, as well as to provide the support and reassurance needed.

Despite the initial sense of despair and confusion amongst the residents, it was inspiring to witness an increasing sense of solidarity amongst them. 'We have no-one else but each other one of the women said to the rest of the group, insisting that in the face of the crisis they should become like a 'family' that care for each other by respecting the restrictions that had to be in place from then onwards. Even in the middle of the initial confusion the 'Fatima family' were able to organise themselves by preparing and freezing food to be used in case one of them caught the virus. They created a system to check on each other regularly, particularly the most vulnerable amongst them.

Over the weeks, and as in many other households living under lockdown, there have been tensions, particularly regarding the need to keep the house safe by refraining from meeting people from outside. The small and often fragile network of friends and support which these women have makes these restrictions particularly difficult for them. Nevertheless, many times I have felt encouraged to see that with their limited English they try hard to explain to each other updates as well as news about the crisis. I am mindful that, in addition to the stress provoked by developments at local level, they are also constantly worried as they follow information from their own countries of origin, where they may have relatives and friends.

As they have had more time on their hands, the residents have decided to work together in clearing and cleaning the gardens surrounding the church building next door. When Easter Sunday came, and although the church was already closed and empty, the gardens and flowers outside looked more beautiful than usual thanks to their hard work. One of the women said to me to me that despite being from different faith backgrounds they participated in this gardening work 'to say thank you to the church' for offering them hospitality and support at Fatima house.

Just before the lockdown period began, a gardening project had started at Fatima House. Every Monday afternoon volunteers and residents would gather to clean and improve a small area at the back of the building connected to the house's back door. Following the restrictions, the volunteers could no longer visit to run the project. The women have continued to work in the area and now the place has been transformed and awaits the growth of tomatoes, lettuces, peppers and onions. The dull concrete-dominated place has become a garden that the residents can enjoy, and they look forward to a summer party to celebrate a potentially bountiful harvest.

Despite the wonderful signs of companionship, solidarity and resilience shown by the residents, this has been a very difficult and testing time for them. The vulnerability they experience due to their immigration status plays a detrimental effect on their mental health. I can see that Covid-19 has come to exacerbate their sense of uncertainty about the future as this makes the achievements of their exit strategies more complex and challenging.

The Fatima House project was born in 2016 as a result of the so called Migrant Crisis. As we journey through this new crisis may the support received by so many continue to be a concrete sign of solidarity with those seeking sanctuary amongst us.

Fatima House is a project collaboration between the Columbans and the Archdiocese of Birmingham, which offers accommodation to nine destitute female asylum seekers. Mauricio Silva is the project coordinator and organises the day-to-day management of the project.

Tags: Coronavirus, Covid-19, Lockdown, Columbans, Garden, Mauricio Silva, Fatima House

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