The refugee experience can take a particular toll on family relationships impairing parenting skills and often resulting in children having to take emotional and practical responsibility for their parents.1
In Liverpool, a family refugee support project helps improve the mental health of refugee and asylum-seeking families by providing families with land at an allotment. A gardener and a psychotherapist are employed to work on the site with the families one day a week. The intention is for psychotherapeutic work to develop out of the gardening, with one of the main aims being to use metaphors drawn from the natural world to help the families deal with the traumatic experiences they have lived through.
Although based on work by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture,2 the project is unusual in that it was set up to work with families rather than individuals.
The results of a recent evaluation3 show that the project is having a significant impact on the lives of the families who have been part of it. The 10 families who were in the project in the summer of 2001 were interviewed about their quality of life, their feelings of health and well-being and about how the project had helped them. All the families were in the position of having had their initial claims for asylum rejected. They were interviewed again in the spring of 2003, by which time two of the families had been deported, with the others still awaiting the outcome of their appeals.
For some, this process works in a direct and physical way, such as the man for whom digging his allotment reminds him of burying the dead back home in Kosovo. For others being part of the process of growth simply helps them to see hope in the future. The project also brings other therapeutic benefits to the families, such as improved physical health and the positive feelings derived from growing their own crops.
The evaluation shows, however, that while the intended therapeutic benefits of the project are valued by the families, the broader social context in which they occur is just as important. In particular, the project has been a vital source of friendship and mutual support for a group of people who would otherwise be very isolated, and provides the adults, especially the men, with a substitute for paid employment which, as asylum seekers, they are not permitted to have. For some it is a place to go as a family and play with their children, while for others it is primarily a place for the adults to go to escape from the confines of home.
The evaluation shows clearly that the strength of this project lies in its holistic approach to mental health, providing the families not only with access to much needed therapy, but also with a vital social support system.
1 M Howard and M Hodes, “Psychopathology, adversity, and service utilisation of young refugees”, Journal of the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 39 (3), 2000
2 S Linden and J Grut, The Healing Fields – Working with Psychotherapy and Nature to Rebuild Shattered Lives, Frances Lincoln, 2002
3 S Hodge and E Perkins, An Evaluation of the Family Refugee Support Project, Health and Community Care Research Unit, Research Report No. 93/03
Suzanne Hodge is senior research assistant at the health and community care research unit, University of Liverpool.