Putting down roots
Fences & Frontiers aims to make London a welcoming, supportive and inspiring place to live for refugees and people seeking asylum, including by providing trips to green spaces in and around the capital. Writer Taran N Khan recently joined the charity on an evocative walk in Kew gardens, an experience that proved to be a ‘terrain of shared memories’.
The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, on the western edge of London, are one of the city’s most admired green spaces. Many of the specimens in the 330-acre grounds are from around the world, having travelled great distances to put down roots in this part of the earth.
One day this summer, I accompanied a group of people who were attempting to do the same. I was part of a walk organised by Fences & Frontiers, an NGO that invites people seeking asylum and migrants living in London on expeditions around the city’s open spaces. That day, my task was not only to walk with them, but to help them write about their experiences.
Fences & Frontiers works to make London an open, welcoming space for refugees and people seeking asylum. To achieve this, it runs a Saturday walking group called Never Walk Alone, in which volunteers lead groups of participants through parks, wetlands and trails inside and outside the capital.
‘Fences & Frontiers was formed in 2016, and has been built around a desire to give people an escape from daily struggles and fears, a sense of community, and, more than that, offer hope for the future,’ said Lewis Garland, founder of the organisation, who had joined the walk. ‘We do this by providing opportunities for people to enjoy the simple things that most of us take for granted – the chance to immerse ourselves in nature, to explore galleries and museums, to share food, and build friendships.’
Since 2018, the organisation has led over 70 walks to areas ranging from the South Downs to Epping Forest, Broadstairs to the Walthamstow Wetlands. It also runs a programme called London, Museums & Me, which leads refugee children and their families through London’s cultural venues, such as the British Museum, the Science Museum and various city farms.
‘Each part of the walk called forth a different set of stories’
On that summer day, we were 20 adults and one very lively child, wandering the different routes that criss-cross through Kew. Because the publicity for these events usually happens through word of mouth, Garland had explained to me earlier, the geographical composition of the group can change from walk to walk. That day, the participants were from El Salvador, Iran and Honduras.
We moved from shaded dells to riverside views, formal gardens to glasshouses. Each vista called forth a different set of stories that the participants inscribed as ‘postcards’ to their friends and relatives. To begin, we sprawled on the grass near a riot of flower beds, and described the sounds of the park.
‘With one’s eyes closed one can feel nature in all its glory. The wind, the sound of the birds, all of us breathing. It’s a beautiful sensation of peace and tranquillity,’ wrote Gabriel, a former accountant turned stay-at-home mum from Honduras.
‘The peace. A butterfly of sensations runs through my body. Softness and many colours, we are a rainbow of flowers in the midst of sounds,’ echoed the postcard by Beatrice, who has lived in London for four years and loves poetry, walking and reading.
For many people in the group, including myself, walking for leisure wasn’t a routine activity we grew up with. For women in places like my hometown in India, the simple act of leaving the house often comes with proscriptions and rules. All of which means that for some of us in the group, walking came imbued with a sense of effort.
This can seem unusual to people who walk for pleasure in the UK. Sometimes, a volunteer explained to me, the group gets tired. People want to stop walking even when they are short of their destination. At those times, the shared experience of being together takes precedence over the exploration of a new place. For many of the group members, the reason for turning up each Saturday isn’t the act of walking, but the feeling of community.
Overhead, airplanes provided a constant reminder of the state of movement the world is locked in, thundering on their flight paths relentlessly, drowning out our conversations.
‘Lorena and Mahmood’s voices, talking about their own homes, turned the unfamiliar landscape into a terrain of shared memories’
I chatted with Mahmood, who had moved to London from Iran. He quizzed me about the famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and seemed disappointed by my lack of knowledge of contemporary Iranian authors. Mahmood had spent the week drafting his asylum application, which had been very hard, he said.
On my previous expedition with Never Walk Alone, I had conversed with Lorena from El Salvador about the varieties of mangoes found in her country, which she missed with the same intensity that I craved my favourite Indian langdas. Lorena and Mahmood’s voices, talking about their own homes, turned the unfamiliar landscape into a terrain of shared memories for me.
We stopped at a meadow a little away from the river bed, the water running dry and sluggish in the summer. One by one, the group offered an object they had collected on their wandering, and told an imagined story about it.
One transformed an unusually shaped piece of wood into a piece of deer antler that had dropped to the ground as part of a charged fight. Another held up a dandelion flower, speaking in Spanish of how it wandered through the park scattering its seeds along the way. Mahmood picked up her story. In Farsi, he added, dandelions are called ghasedak; their dancing seeds considered to be the bearers of good news. The objects were passed through different languages, twisting into new meanings, creating stories out of stories.
We wandered towards the iconic glasshouses, which are the most immediately recognisable structure in the park. Inside are botanical specimens that also bear the complicated burden of the UK’s colonial past, like so many landmarks in the city.
I volunteered to take a photo of the group, and they politely stood below the steps, leaving a wide path around for passers-by. The value of the expedition for the group members had been evident to me from the moment we began our walk. But now it seemed equally important for the gardens and its visitors to have the group present, bringing to its wide open spaces their own diverse voices. I asked them to pose on the steps of the conservatory. ‘Spread out’, I said. ‘You look great.’
Fences & Frontiers provides lunch with its walks, and we ate ours sitting inside the perimeter formed by a magnificent Lebanon fir; a private chamber with curtains of green. Within its embrace, there was respite from the muggy humidity of the afternoon. In this organic amphitheatre, we heard about the roads travelled by the participants.
‘I am a dreamer, with desires to eat up the word. I define myself as a woman that can achieve everything. I like to write poetry and walk under the rain,’ wrote Beatrice.
‘Do you know that England is a beautiful place, full of parks and impressive places that allow you to get away from everything and have contact with nature where you can reflect or simply relax. It has been some years and months that we live here, but you can get caught in the stress of traffic and the coming and going of people for work everyday, so it is also good that I had the opportunity to know the beautiful places,’ wrote Judith.
‘Fences & Frontiers pushes against simplistic and harmful stereotypes through the simple act of walking’
Often in the stories told by refugees, they speak only as refugees. There is no sense of their lives outside the narratives of loss and displacement they have endured. It is as if they have no history, and no complexity; very often even these narratives are told for them by others.
Fences & Frontiers pushes against such simplistic and harmful stereotypes through the simple act of walking; by building bridges between the abstract figure of an asylum seeker, and the flesh and blood people who live with displacement. So their walks are antidotes for the loneliness of asylum seekers. But they are also essential antidotes for the easy bigotry that can often infuse the country of asylum.
At the close of our walk, we lay down and listened to the hypnotic music of the Hive, a white structure that hums with the harmony of Kew’s actual bees, housed nearby. Then we scattered, taking our own paths home, carrying postcards from our day out together.
Taran N Khan is the author of Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, which won the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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Photo © Fences & Frontiers
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