Community Gardening in Torture Treatment

Many torture survivor rehabilitation centers in the U.S. strive to recreate a home-like atmosphere for clients – from hanging indigenous textiles on the walls to displaying small handicrafts from around the world.  And since many survivors come from cultures where they were deeply connected to the soil, creating community gardens seemed like a natural extension of this home-away-from-home philosophy. 

The Majorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture in Chicago uses its community garden as a form of occupational therapy.  They have found that client-directed projects are more sustainable, so they created an international cooking group.  Every other Friday, survivors gather ingredients from a community garden nearby to create a menu based on traditional foods from survivors’ home countries.  Then they make the meal from scratch.  “When we sit down to eat, the cook talks about the food, culture and mealtime traditions in their home country,” said Mary Black, the Occupational Therapist who runs the group.  “People might dance, sing. It’s very rich. There’s a lot of joy expressed there – and pride.”

At the Center for Victims of Torture in Minnesota, volunteers maintain a healing garden, which symbolizes the mission of hope, healing, and renewal.  Plants, like people, go through cycles that present changes, and the garden offers the opportunity for survivors to relax, think, pray or to simply be still. 

And at the now closed Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, staff worked with clients to design a healing garden as well, where as one client said someone can, “lie down, stretch out their arms, and look at the sky."  Client volunteers maintained the garden, which hosted events like a client-led drumming circle, a community welcoming party and a chi qong class for staff.  Clients often wrote in the garden journal, and one client eloquently stated, “Le jardin de l’ASTT exprime une nature particulière, la joie de l’existence même.  Les chutes et le bruit de l’eau de la source exprimé un esprit de continuité, de ne jamais s’arreter ou d’être découragé dans la vie.”  (English translation): “The ASTT garden expresses a special nature, the joy of existence itself. The cascades and sound of the water-source express a spirit of continuity, of never stopping or being discouraged in life.”

The International Rescue Committee’s Center for Well-Being in Tuscon, runs a therapeutic gardening group for Bhutanese survivors.  “One of the hallmarks of being a torture survivor is a feeling of isolation — that you’re the only one,” said Aaron Grigg, interim Executive Director.  “All of them have a background in agriculture, and it’s a way for them to get back to their roots.”



Date published: 

Monday, 15 December 2014

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