The story of the refugees: war memorial

Decades ago, the Black Environment Network and the Refugee Council set up the first environmental project in the UK to facilitate enjoyable environmental activities to help alleviate the bleak lives of refugees in Edinburgh, especially for recent arrivals, who felt lost and isolated. We spread the word, but for the first visit only two people turned up. The trip was a visit to the magnificent Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Our experienced development worker was not fazed by the very low turnout and simply proceeded to give these two fortunate people her full attention. As a result of this positive encounter, through word of mouth, the next time more people turned up. By the third trip, which was to Loch Lomond, so many people turned up that, in order not to disappoint them, she filled the pre-booked minibus and took the rest on a train to meet up at the site. After some months, a group of refugees came to her and said, ‘You have given us so much. We would like to give something back. What can we do?’ They were shown a choice of different kinds of volunteering. They decided they wanted to plant trees. However, because of the way BEN works, which is centered on our assertion that ‘There is no such thing as a pure environmental project. A so-called pure environmental project is one that had neglected its social, cultural and economic elements’, the group felt able to share their deeply felt wish with us. They each wanted to plant a tree for those loved ones that had died or had been left behind.

The planting of the trees became a heartbreaking and joyous occasion, at which each of the refugees created and enacted their very own ceremony (Figure 66.6). The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV: now The Conservation Volunteers), the organization that worked with us, logged the position of the trees and labeled them with copper tags. This is not just a stand of trees. It is a war memorial.


This is a particularly poignant and personal example, but we have many memorial gardens in which trees feature to express our loss in war and conflict. In London a tree was planted

Planting trees can be symbolic of joy or lossin Embankment Gardens, marked by a plaque, to commemorate those who died in the 7/7 terrorist attack

Figure 66.6 Planting trees can be symbolic of joy or lossin Embankment Gardens, marked by a plaque, to commemorate those who died in the 7/7 terrorist attack. Many magnificent trees are very long-lived. Some of them exceed the normal human lifespan. In trees, we see a suitable commemorative symbol of continuity into the future, of undying love, the appreciation of the beauty and hope set within life itself. At the opposite end of the scale to the commemoration of loss, trees are often planted in celebration of meaningful events. Tree dressing on special days, including decorating Christmas trees, and the use of evergreen foliage play a role in different traditions. There are wishing trees, where people tie a ribbon for their wish, or trees that house a local deity.

The story of the Cambodians: embodiment through landscape

The Black Environment Network ran a small scheme through which multicultural community groups could apply for funds to visit the countryside. Many migrants arriving in the UK end up living in urban areas because that is where the unwanted low paid jobs are, and some of them never see the countryside. At times we got very moving requests. An application from a Cambodian group said, ‘We have always dreamed of seeing Scotland, but we thought we would never see it. Please can you help us?’ The groups we worked with not only needed the small amounts of money we provided, but support in identifying where to go; how to get there; ensuring there will be a welcome; and an enjoyable program of activities, ideally supported by a ranger. In the project report, they said, 'This trip has made the United Kingdom a reality in our lives.’ The project made us realize that some individuals and groups, are so isolated and cut off from information sources, contacts and therefore security, that their world is shrinking and lacks the normal possibilities of life, and experience of their new country.


The circumstance of having no sense of the possibility of free movement outside urban areas creates a symbol of exclusion and disempowerment. It accentuates other forms of isolation within the city. Contact with nature becomes a healing scenario, within which a new sense of possibility' opens out. Many groups, which have come from the countryside within their countries of origin, and now live trapped in an urban area, often experience an emotive reunion with nature on these trips. Some say they' have never seen the sea since they arrived. Connection with nature and what the environmental sector has to offer in terms of relationship building and volunteering is something special. The environmental sector stands out from all the other sectors in terms of its positivity; Everything is connected, even really hard volunteering work, to beauty and to an intrinsic sense of wholeness and belonging. It has therefore an enormous and very' particular role to play within social cohesion. This trip by the Cambodians to Scotland was followed by' an introduction to local greenspaces, urban nature reserves, and above all personnel from environmental organizations that welcomed them. Through the experience of those who lack all that we take for granted, we can see the richness of environmental engagement and its intrinsic meanings as symbols and metaphor in the context of the relationship of people to nature and the relationship of people to each other. Environmental organizations that have woken up to the fact of the significant context of the benefits of environmental contact and participation have also subsequently designed projects with socio-cultural environmental aims that tap into social funding rather than environmental funding, creating an additional avenue of support for their organizations. In the 1990s, BTCV discovered through their staff survey that the staff that worked with the most disadvantaged groups had the highest job satisfaction. In recent decades, the environmental sector has undergone a sea change in its attitude to environmental engagement. People for nature and nature for people are in equilibrium.

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