A HEMP farm in Goring Heath has been recognised as a place of sanctuary for refugees.
Hempen runs community days for people seeking asylum in the UK and allows them to grow their own food on the site instead of relying on food banks.
The farm is run as a workers’
co-operative and grows hemp, which is a strain of the cannabis plant that is used to make a variety of health and wellbeing products including CBD oil.
It has been given a Garden of Sanctuary award by City of Sanctuary, an organisation aiming to make towns and cities across the UK welcoming places for refugees.
Representatives of the Reading group visited the farm to present the award to Hempen, along with Peter Dragonetti, who represents Goring Heath on South Oxfordshire District Council.
The presentation took place in the farm’s “garden of sanctuary”.
The farm runs community days every Tuesday as part of a community outreach project called Growing Solidarity.
It invites refugees to come and spend time in nature and to meet people. The visitors are taught to grow their own food, which they can then do on site or in their own
Volunteers talk to the refugees and give lifts to those who would not be able to get there otherwise. On Wednesdays they deliver the food to the Reading Refugee Support Group’s food banks.
Sophie Gale, co-ordinator of the project, said: “We developed this after hearing people wanted to spend time in the natural world.
“We want to develop sustainable food chains for people, going from the food bank model where they are given food to a more participatory relationship, growing something and being part of it.
“We focus on building resilience in different members of the community with nature being our foundation.
“People can grow things, spend time appreciating the natural world and spend time chatting and working out things about life. It’s very special.”
Patrick Gillett, co-founder of Hempen, said: “I helped found it in 2015 as a not-for-profit workers’
co-operative offering hemp solutions. Hemp products are amazing for health and amazing for the planet.
“The community aspect of Hempen is really important to us.
“Sophie Gale and Tom Woodcock decided to pioneer our community offering. It gets people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get here to come down, grow veg and be part of our community.”
Mary, who is a refugee, said: “I was excited to go to the farm. I met new people and made friends. I learned many things about agriculture that I didn’t know before. I was so happy.
“The staff are wonderful and kind to everyone. They take us in the car to the farm and drive us back home, which means we are able to take part without spending the little that we have on transport.
“They also are kind and respectful and play with the kids when they come with me to the farm. We are also able to take whatever vegetables we want home with us.”
Eric, another refugee, said: “Since coming here I’ve met people and made friends.
“It’s good to be in a community and learn things. I’ve learnt how to make things and how to build.
“It also helps to perfect the language by talking to more people.”
Volunteers for the Growing Solidarity project have also been helping deal with weeds at the farm which have grown since it destroyed the hemp crop after losing its grower’s licence. The farm now has to import hemp in to make its products.
Ms Gale said: “Getting this recognition is a way to communicate with a bigger audience the importance of working with people from different backgrounds and supporting people who through no fault of their own have had to leave their homes.
“There are complicated messages in the media about people seeking sanctuary. It’s important to show our care and solidarity and it’s quite positive, building resilience and community.
“It was great to see people and connect different groups who are involved in Hempen in different ways, people who live on the estate, people who volunteer, people seeking sanctuary.
“We’re very moved to receive this award. We know that many people seeking sanctuary are fleeing very difficult life circumstances.
“Many are traumatised and exhausted from having nowhere to go and feel belonging when they make it to the UK.
“The project aims to offer such a space and we know that the individuals and families that we work with get a lot out of visiting the farm and spending time engaging with meaningful activities, relaxing and socialising.
“It means so much to see the project recognised and valued by the City of Sanctuary.
“The best way to support it is if you shop at the Co-op and are a member to make Growing Solidarity your designated local cause.
“You can also come along on a Tuesday and volunteer and get involved in growing. It’s a great way to come and learn about Hemp. You are welcome to volunteer in different parts of the business.”
Lorraine Briffitt, who chairs Reading City of Sanctuary, said: “We are delighted to work with Hempen. It’s amazing to see the energy they’ve poured into becoming recognised as a garden of sanctuary.
“This comes at a time when solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers is needed more than ever before. It’s inspiring to see community organisations playing their part by stepping up.
“Please do get in touch with us if your organisation would like to start its own journey of welcome.”
For more information or to volunteer, visit www.hempen.co.uk/