In Dresden’s International Garden, allotment plots are divided between refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and foreigners as well as local Germans. It is all about putting down roots and growing things together towards a brighter future, explains one member of the governing committee who provided InfoMigrants a tour of the garden.
“Here are some aubergines, some peppers, pak choi, lots of coriander,” says Christian Bärisch, one of the members of the International Garden Dresden’s governing committee. “That plot is grown by one of our members from Vietnam. We walk on a bit and he points out a beautifully structured plot, each plant group separated by lines of bricks. “These are grown by a Chinese gardner” says Chris smiling at the symmetry of her plot. Further down there are some special Asian pumpkins which grow hanging from a structure in special nets.Behind that is Salwan’s plot -- he and his uncle are refugees from Syria. They are picking ripe cherry tomatoes to take home and eat. Lush rocket sprouts on another corner, chard, mallow which he likes to use with rice and lots of lemon, cucumbers and courgettes. “I’ve been in Dresden for four years,” explains Salwan as he points out his favorite plants on the plot. “My uncle and I found this plot last year. It has become really important to me. When you live in a city it is important to find a place where you can breathe in fresh air and I love the feeling of being able to harvest food that I have sown.”
‘Seeds from home’
Salwan says that caring for his plants has really helped make him feel happy in Dresden. “I study agrarian management so I enjoy working with plants,” he smiles. “It really makes me happy. Our plot helps us bring a taste of home to our table.” He picks some rocket and sniffs deeply. “It really tastes different when you grow it yourself, much better than in the shops,” Salwan laughs. “We brought some seeds with us from home and if anyone comes back from the region they might bring some seeds with them too, that really helps improve your mood.”
Salwan likes to try out different plants. Mallow or Malva is one of his ‘experiments.’ Everyone told him that it wouldn’t grow in Germany, but, he says with a smile, he proved them wrong. “You can buy it dry in Middle Eastern shops but it is much better when it is fresh,” Salwan concludes.
“I always have a good feeling when I come back to Dresden,” says Salwan, smiling shyly. “Of course everyone would prefer to stay in the country in which they were born but over there awful things are happening, there are still so many problems and no one knows what might happen so we are just watching helplessly from abroad.” He says it is difficult to know whether he will return there or not, but now that he has learned a bit more German he is feeling better and better in his adopted city. “The Germans are really nice,” Salwan says. “I really feel I can build my future here. Studying, working; when you find the right course or the right job then you just feel happy don’t you?”
Gardeners from 20 nations
The International garden is not too far from the river and Dresden’s Zoo, in the area of the city known as Johannstadt. Just behind the huge green space, big soviet-era blocks rise up. “This is a very mixed area, there are lots of pensioners, also students and refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, so it is a very diverse area,” explains Bärisch. “The garden stretches over 4,000 cubic meters of land. We have about 120 members and about 65 spaces for individuals, which are then sub-divided up into individual plots of about 20 cubic meters per person, or couple. Some of our land is communal where everyone can work but quite a lot of it is divided into individual plots.”
Each refugee is asked to pay about 10 euros a year for their plot. The German members might contribute 20-30 euros a year. The garden committee pays 2000 euros a year to the state authorities for the use of the land. It is a small but useful amount, thinks Bärisch, paying something for your plot instills moral and financial responsibility. Each year, the plots are shared out again, so that anyone who hasn’t been utilizing their space might be asked if they really want to continue or if they will cede to someone new.
Bärisch explains that at first, like many German communal gardens, they thought they should all work on shared space but it turned out that most people like to have a space they can call their own. Walking along the narrow paths, each space is highly individual. Some grow flowers, most have vegetables and perhaps a few flowers. “The garden should be a place of tranquility,” says Bärisch. “We realized that lots of people had already got very traumatic histories behind them, so they wouldn’t want to come into a big space and have to potentially enter into lengthy discussions about how an area should be used.”
The garden moved to its current position in 2016. Now they are working with a local bee keeper to host bee hives on the site too. They already produce their own ‘International garden honey’ from their first site and the gardeners are looking forward to getting extra help from the bees with the pollination at the new site too.
“It is surprising what grows here sometimes,” says Bärisch. He says occasionally they all cook together or bring food to the outdoor kitchen. The summer is the busiest time for that kind of thing; autumn is a time when things start to quieten down. Even in October though, tomatoes are still ripening on the vines, baby aubergines are nestling between lush green leaves and the coriander is looking bushy and bright.
“One third of our plots are for those who are refugees or asylum seekers; one third is for people with some kind of foreign background, perhaps they have come to study here from abroad, or they are married to a German and live here now; and the last third is for local Germans from the area. We hope that this kind of division can help the integration process for all concerned. We live in a multi-cultural society now but often it can be that some Germans haven’t really wanted to engage with that idea and so we find that this mix in our garden is good for helping people mix in and learn,” adds Bärisch.
He says that sometimes these exchanges have started off with confrontation. “Perhaps someone in the neighborhood is complaining about someone grilling or singing on a certain day. Then we have to explain to them that that is a really important day, like Eid for instance for the Muslims and that is the reason that they were celebrating in the garden. That has been a great learning process for everyone concerned.”
Another interesting cultural misunderstanding, remembers Bärisch was that one German had decided to plant a vine to make wine. “Then many of our Middle Eastern members wanted to pick the leaves to make stuffed vine leaves and that kind of thing as that is important in their cuisine.” The Germans couldn’t understand why they would be picking the leaves and ruining the grapes, “so everyone had to start to see that there can be several different ways of using a plant.” The solution, he says, “was to plant some more vines so that everyone could use the plant in the way they thought best.”
The garden community is constantly learning, says Bärisch. At first lots of people wanted to build green houses on their plots because they wanted to grow more exotic vegetables that they were used to at home. “But that didn’t look good in the garden so we decided to build some bigger greenhouses so we can grow tomatoes communally and we got rid of any smaller plastic and glass structures on the individual plots,” he explains.
“Gardening is our universal language,” laughs Bärisch. “Gardening is about addressing elemental themes but it is a great leveler and enables people to connect.”
In September, he remembers, the gardeners went through the garden and picked everything that had ripened in order to make a big soup together; “that was really delicious,” Bärisch smiles. The very German institution of coffee and cake has also established itself in the garden community. “People bake cakes from their homeland and we meet together to eat and chat, that is wonderful.” Bärisch explains that a lot of Arabic origin women tend to join in that particular activity.
“A lot of the refugees thank us all the time, and we wonder whether they really feel part of our community. We think it is very polite of them but we worry that they feel that we are ‘allowing’ them to be here, when we want them to feel that they are just as much a part of this place as we are. That is what we are learning, how to make people feel part of things,” says Bärisch thoughtfully. He calls the garden a “mini-laboratory!” concluding, “we just want to garden with each other on the same level.”Gardening is all about patience, thinks Bärisch. You wait for the plants to grow and you see what works and what doesn’t. Getting on as a community group is similar. “We see this garden as a kind of island for people outside their daily lives; for all of us here. Some of our German pensioners might live alone and might find someone to talk to at the garden. For the refugees it might be something different, something to be responsible for, everyone finds their own way in the garden.”
The group has worked on a compost heap and a composting toilet as well as joint tomato greenhouses. He smiles when asked about how everyone gets on together. A lot of the people who want to take part in integrative projects with migrants from Germany, thinks Bärisch, might be green voters or left-leaning. It is quite interesting when they find that some of the migrants or refugees might hold much more conservative views than them. “You have to learn that everyone has different views and that is something to celebrate. It would be incredibly boring if we all held the same views, wouldn’t it? We need something to discuss and even argue about as long as we maintain respect for one another. You really learn about the human condition here.”