Dunedin’s Beryl Lee is just back from Moscow, where she attended the International Syringa Conference (lilacs being one of her major passions). Another is working with migrants to assist them in settling in New Zealand, and she presented this work at a recent symposium of social interactions with migrants to Dunedin. She uses her gardening knowledge, her teaching background, and her interest in social issues to assemble groups of senior migrants to work together in a local school garden.

As a former migrant myself, now well settled into Dunedin and the NZ way of life, I can still remember the process of settling in, of becoming familiar with the lingo ‘Good as gold!’ and the friendliness and kindness we received. We were, however, much younger.

Senior migrants are Beryl’s focus. Through her work with the Multi-Ethnic Council, and her Presidency of that group, she found that seniors needed particular attention. She had the impression that these seniors were ‘in the shadows’ and that they feel older, and less active, and less involved in the new country, than their families, whom they had often followed, in order to help them as they settled into new jobs in a new country. In addition to assisting their younger family members, Beryl has noticed that some migrants returned home for months at a time, to help care for their own elderly family members.   So as well as helping the younger families, these senior migrants also continue to care, for their much elderly family. This could make settling here more difficult, I suggest.

In 2013 she set up a small group in the multi-ethnic meetings for older people to practice English and become socially more integrated. She thought she could help them with their knowledge of local conditions. These included local foods, activities, and general socialisation.   By encouraging them to meet with each other and by entertaining them in her home, she could also assist in initiating and maintaining their social networks. With the help of these migrants Beryl and Afife Harris have written a cookbook, A Global Feast: Traditional Meals in a New Homeland with contributions from 26 countries and is a marvellous addition to the cookbook shelves.

Other members of the Multi-Ethnic Council wanted to begin a community garden for senior migrants with limited English. A Chinese couple in the Council was keen to encourage as many seniors as possible, and to be inclusive of all interested migrants. Musselburgh School already had a school garden, but needed more help to maintain it. Beryl, as a former school adviser, suggested to the school that garden maintenance could be a project in combination with the Multiethnic Council. A visionary idea, in my view.

The project was thoroughly considered and very well organised.  Amongst items listed were costs involved, of raised beds, plants, tools, windbreaks and stakes. And importantly, Beryl insisted that there were significant positives of developing good relationships between children from the school and the senior migrants, the socialising of the migrants and their activity and interest.

The project began in mid-2013 and initially attracted between sixteen and twenty migrants from a variety of different countries, such as Turkish, South American, French, English, Canadian, Indian, Lebanon, Pakistani, Fijians, and Scottish. Now the garden volunteers are mostly Chinese and Malaysian, and the group currently numbers 8. It is now being promoted again, to find other interested volunteers for this opportunity. Usually there are more women than men, but now it’s about half and half.

The school held a Powhiri. This special ceremony not only began the project, but also emphasized the welcome to the migrants settling in Dunedin.

These volunteer-gardeners work for about two hours every two weeks, with the children coming and talking to them, and after their gardening stint, the group visit Beryl’s house, nearby, for morning tea. They don’t speak English, but one of the groups manages to interpret.

What do they do for plants and tools?

Plants are always vegies, and Beryl grows them on from seeds, and donates the seedlings to the school garden, as do other people. Some plants are familiar from home countries, and some unfamiliar, so she takes photographs of the adult plants to ensure the migrant gardeners become familiar with any unknown plants. Plants grown range from potatoes, yams, broad beans, runner beans, bok choi, silverbeet and kohlrabi. Fruits are: raspberries, cranberries, gooseberries, parsley and mint and other garden herbs, and tomatoes, apples and pears.

What volunteers do is to clean the garden, and organise it in preparation for growth, to plant and to weed. And she includes recipes too so that they know what these plants will make.

Tools she keeps in her own shed, and on the gardening days she puts the tools in a wheelbarrow and leaves it at her gate. The men collect this and take the tools to the garden.

Harvesting? People take what they want and give away to others.

The collaboration with the Dunedin Multi-Ethnic Council and the school has resulted in a real success story.

It’s a non-threatening way of getting to know people, learning a few new English phrases, teaching the schoolchildren a few phrases from the different languages and showing a broader range of cultures. It teaches newcomers about New Zealand gardening habits and different foods. Even without interpreters for the different languages, migrants can interact with each other. Gardening is probably a fairly familiar activity, and doing it for a school, with friendly staff and children, gives a sense of belonging. There’s fun involved as well as action with a purpose. Furthermore, getting to know people in a neighbourhood, becoming familiar with the streets’ layout, and the local shops is another step on the way to becoming familiar and belonging to the community.

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