Training for Permaculture Teachers with a Focus on Refugees

By Sylvia Avontuur

Factory chimney or Baobab tree? Joshua Konkankoh, an elder from Cameroon, opened the Training Permaculture Teachers with Focus on Refugees (TPT4R) with a ritual to ground the group — imagining that the chimney in the distance was a sacred Baobab tree. I was standing in a circle surrounded by new faces from all corners of the world. We – the course participants – first needed to root ourselves in our new home for the following eight days: the Vidàlia ecovillage, housed in a former textile factory near Barcelona.

The invasion of Ukraine and the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking asylum in the European Union has focused societal attention on the issue of mass migration. Numbers are escalating, since there are so many reasons for people to flee: war, poverty, famine, natural disasters like floods and fires, religious clashes, LGBTQ and political persecution, corruption, inequality and epidemics. On top we can expect that, due to climate change, some areas will become unlivable.

Most people migrate to rural areas or neighboring countries, for example Syria’s mass migration of 1.5 million to Lebanon, a country that is hosting the largest number of refugees per capita and is in a deep crisis itself. Even when a neighboring country is at war, for some refugees it is an improvement to the difficulties of their current situation at home.

The motivation to partake in the TPT4R course was the call of facilitator Alfred Decker for solidarity. “People Care” means full human rights for all refugees and displaced people, at all stages of their journey. Permaculture can offer a lot in finding practical solutions, such as helping to become more self-sufficient and build resilience, or organising community living in which social permaculture comes into play.

The “TPT” was developed by the respected and beloved educator Rosemary (Rowe) Morrow. After teaching dozens of PDC’s since the 80’s, Rowe realised that a teacher training course could have a powerful multiplier effect in giving confidence and practical teaching tools to permaculturists who want to teach. This TPT was a special one, for the first time having the ‘4R’ (Focus on Refugees) added to it. In the last decade, Rowe has been active in teaching PDC’s at refugee settlements. Struggling with translators, she recognised that it is more effective to have experienced teachers on location who can speak the local language. This was the origin for the idea to organise a course, in which migrants or refugees can be trained to teach.

With the support of permaculture for Refugees a crowdfunding campaign was set up and funds were raised to create 16 scholarships for this first course in November as well as another one at the end of May, 2023.
On the first morning of the course, Rowe joined the group virtually from Australia. She had a question for all of us: “Why are you here?”
Iryna Kazakova, who was attending with three other Ukrainian women, responded: “Our mission is to spread permaculture to as many people as possible. It is very practical for those who have escaped the city due to the bombings, unexpectedly ending up in the countryside and do not know what they can do with their new ‘earthly happiness’. And hopefully after the victory we could use permaculture to create more green spaces when rebuilding our cities.”

I answered Rosemary that I would like to discover how I can help as a Dutch woman. Rosemary replied to me: “Come back to me after the course, then you will know it. At my age, time will come for me to retire. All help is welcome”.

What I admire is the abundant way of thinking that Rowe represents. She will leave a great legacy, as she has put all her knowledge free to download on her website for the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute.

Alfred did an amazing job to get a diverse group together which gave enormous depth and richness to the course. There were three co-facilitators: Sonita Mbah from Cameroon, currently undergoing a MSc at Gaia University in Integrative Eco-social Design; Yau Fan, born in Hong Kong and migrated to France as a child, and Habiba Yoessef from Lebanon, cofounder of the La Bolina project near Granada that is giving migrants a social network and employment opportunities, whilst at the same time revitalising a depopulated rural area.

Two PDC holders from Gambia living at La Bolina joined the course. There were also participants from Cameroon, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Israel, United States, Sweden, Australia, Finland, UK, Netherlands and Germany — together a group of 24 students, providing a balanced number to be divided into groups.

Along the course practical tips to deliver better and efficient teaching methods were given to us. For example, it was explained how circles are the best format for non-formal learning as everybody can be seen. Non-formal education contains the idea that we are all teachers and learners — with only 30% of the time spent with the teacher speaking, 70% is dedicated to other methods to make the learning more participatory. Many more were shared to provide engagement, like games and energisers — and there was a lot of brainstorming and questioning. Collective wisdom is worth more than individual wisdom.

Every day we had to prepare a topic to practice our teaching skills. Through these “Micro-Facilitations” we developed our confidence step-by-step. The first one was 15 minutes, presenting to a few people and by the end of the course we gave a group presentation of 40 minutes to the whole class. Rowe’s teacher training curriculum consists of six days. During this course one day was added to have time to reflect on topics like ecofeminism with Starhawk, joining via Zoom from San Francisco.

The session on decolonisation of the mind was also very relevant. Teaching permaculture might also be seen as form of colonialism, as it has extracted knowledge from indigenous cultures — which is now presented in a different form, with the writing of these oral traditions on paper, and adding the concept of design produced by western cultures.
For some migrants, this indigenous wisdom is still deeply ingrained in their roots. Holistic thinking and community living is in their nature. There is no separation. This functional design approach can feel too rigid to them. Joshua Konkankoh, Cameroon elder, explained how design can become a way to control nature. It is not flowing. A design needs spirit. Everyone exists on earth with a mission and is connected with their ancestors.

The world of permaculture is also white dominant and often employs English, the language of a colonialist and the historical oppressor. The person who speaks native English has more power -it can be seen as a form of elitism. At school, a person may have suffered trauma when they were beaten for not speaking English – it is important to be aware of all these different factors. A helpful approach could be to avoid paraphrasing non-native speakers. To have fewer barriers, it can be good to encourage people to speak their mother tongue or to incorporate learning styles from other cultures. An example could be through rituals, dancing, reading a poem or writing a song about how to create a garden.

I did a micro-facilitation with James from Gambia, in the form of storytelling, where he prepared an imaginary fireplace and started sharing stories about his culture in relation to food and health.

One of our activities was to design a “river of life” – a great way for everyone to share their personal journeys, including their permaculture highlights. When I heard all of the struggles of my fellow participants, including why they had to leave their homes and the problems they experienced due to bureaucracy, I was really ashamed of how unfair and ineffective our current system is. I also realise that in Europe we often only hear only one side of the story, failing to see the other perspective. Hearing these stories first-hand, unfiltered, deeply impacted me.

On the last day, when Rosemary joined us again via video call, I found it difficult to answer her question of how I could support refugees as I still had to process these new experiences and learnings. To start with, I could incorporate my experience in marketing to help refugees with finding ways to “obtain a yield” and from a communication perspective to raise awareness for what the root problems might be on the topic of migration: our collective disconnection from nature. Despite the apparent complexities with solving issues such as this, surely the solution must stem from the realisation that we are united, together, as one.

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