UK Hemp Co-Op Honored As Refugee Sanctuary

A hemp farm is making positive headlines in the UK for providing food and produce, as well as sanctuary, to refugees in need.
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A hemp farm in the United Kingdom is being honored as a sanctuary for refugees for its program to help immigrants seeking a better life. Hempen, a co-operative community focused on the benefits of hemp, was recognized as a Garden of Sanctuary by City of Sanctuary, a group working to create welcoming spaces for refugees in UK towns and cities.

Hempen’s community outreach project Growing Solidarity hosts weekly events on Tuesdays that give refugees the opportunity to be in nature and meet new friends. Participants are also taught to grow their own food, which they can do either on the farm or in their own gardens at home. 

Each Wednesday, volunteers deliver food grown on the farm to food banks operated by the Reading Refugee Support Group. Sophie Gale, co-ordinator of Growing Solidarity, said that the project was created to help refugees gain self-reliance in their new home.

“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,” Gale told the Henley Standard. “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.”

Lorraine Briffitt, the chair of City of Sanctuary in Reading, gave the award during a recent visit to Hempen, which is located in Goring Heath in the district of South Oxfordshire. 

“We are delighted to work with Hempen. It’s amazing to see the energy they’ve poured into becoming recognized as a garden of sanctuary,” Briffitt said. “This comes at a time when solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers is needed more than ever before. It’s inspiring to see community organizations playing their part by stepping up.”

Hempen is run as a workers co-operative producing a variety of hemp and CBD products and was the UK’s first certified organic hemp farm. Although the farm is not currently licensed to grow hemp, it works with organic hemp farmers to grow and develop their crop, which is manufactured into culinary, cosmetic and wellness products. 

“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,” said Hempen co-founder Patrick Gillett. “The community aspect of Hempen is really important to us.”

“It gets people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get here to come down, grow veg and be part of our community,” Gillett added.

Number of Refugees Entering UK Skyrockets

The UK has seen a spike of refugees entering the country over the past two years as people flee unrest and poverty in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and beyond. In 2019, less than 2,000 refugees made the often risky voyage to travel to the UK, according to a report published by the New Yorker in December. Only a year later, the number had risen to 8,417. And in the first 11 months of 2021, more than 25,000 made the trek to eke out a better living in Britain. When they finally arrive, many refugees are faced with uncertain circumstances as they begin to adapt to their new home.

“Many are traumatized and exhausted from having nowhere to go and feel belonging when they make it to the UK,” said Gale. “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 socializing.”

Mary, one of the refugees participating in the Growing Solidarity program, said that she was excited when she went to the farm and began making friends, including volunteers who offer rides to those who need them.

“I learned many things about agriculture that I didn’t know before. I was so happy. The staff are wonderful and kind to everyone,” said Mary. “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, agreed, saying, “It’s good to be in a community and learn things.”

“I’ve learnt how to make things and how to build,” he added. “It also helps to perfect the language by talking to more people.”

Growing Solidarity’s coordinator said that Hempen’s recognition as a Garden of Sanctuary “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,” added Gale. “It’s important to show our care and solidarity, and it’s quite positive, building resilience and community.”

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