From killing fields to mansion gardens
James Brincat calls it his “build it and they will come” moment.
As the Ranger in Charge at Werribee Park, he has witnessed the regeneration of an historic garden and, in a remarkable example of cultural cross-pollination, the blossoming of local refugee communities.
What started as a call for volunteers to help rebuild the gardens at Werribee turned into a therapy session for dislocated and isolated refugee families.
“It has been amazing to watch what has happened here,” James says, his passion and irrepressible nature evident in his voice.
“What started out as community project to rebuild the old kitchen garden here at Werribee Mansion has turned out to be an incredibly successful social experiment and a model for other community engagement projects,” he said.
“Everyone involved in this is blown away by what we’ve achieved and the inspirational outcomes that have come from putting some seeds in the ground and seeing what happens – both literally and figuratively,” James said.
Like baseball fan Ray Kinsella in the Kevin Costner film ‘Field of Dreams’, James’ garden was built to attract dislocated people from another time and place.
And like the protagonist in the film, he built it and they came.
“We started with a working bee and we had a few of the local Karen people turn up to do some weeding in the mansion gardens. A few of them said they’d like to come back,” James said.
“The Karen came back with some their friends and family members and soon we had a small workforce,” said
With so much labour on hand, James decided in June 2012 to recreate the Mansion’s historic kitchen garden which was first established by the Chirnside family as owners of the mansion in 1875.
The Chirnsides were one of Australia’s wealthiest squatter families who created a pastoral empire in western Victoria and built the 60-room Italianate Werribee Mansion between 1872 and 1877.
As new laws and taxes were introduced into Australia and with the decline of the wool industry, the Chirnsides’ fortunes waned and as a result the kitchen garden fell into disrepair. The family sold Werribee Park in 1922 and for many years the house served as a Catholic seminary.
In 1875 the garden produced fresh vegetables for the Chirnside’s table; now it supplies Werribee Mansion’s upscale restaurant with a stunning array of crops – from mustard greens to Vietnamese mint and from capsicum to chard.
The garden is the result of a program called ‘Working Beyond the Boundaries, a partnership between Parks Victoria, AMES and Werribee Mansion Hotel.
AMES program manager Dr Melika Yassin Sheikh-Eldin says that people from several emerging communities have been attracted to the park’s volunteer program.
“Many of them have come from difficult circumstance or have spent years in refugee camps,” she said.
“Members of these communities, who are striving to adjust to a new country, are encouraged to join the program so that as well as garden they can learn new skills, develop social networks and gain an understanding of a new culture.
“The program has helped many people overcome health or social issues and it can offer a pathway to meaningful employment.” Dr Sheikh-Eldin said.
The Karen people gravitated to the Werribee area after the first of them who arrived in Victoria as refugees were settled there.
The ethnic minority Karen have been persecuted by the Burmese government for 30 years. There are estimated 150,000 Karen living in refugee camps in or on the Thai border.
The Burmese army have systematically destroyed Karen villages and in operations described by human rights groups as ethnic cleansing.
A largely agrarian and village-based people, Karen refugees have often encountered difficulties when settled in urban locations around the world.
Traditionally, they are gardeners and cultivators and living in an urban environment has left many of them dislocated and suffering depression. But being able to volunteer in the gardens of Werribee Park has had a remarkable effect on them.
James Brincat says that many of the local refugee communities have suffered clinical depression and that their health has improved because of the program.
“What we’ve seen is that people find a sense of self-worth being able to come here and do something constructive,” he said.
“What was a big surprise was to see the kids turn up – teenagers also – who want to come and garden. They’re here during the school holidays and weekends, they just love being with their mums,” James said.
One of the mums who played a key role in the success of the program is Evelyn Kunoo, who grew up in southern Burma with a large lush garden where her parents grew mangoes, bananas, pineapples and a cornucopia of vegetables.
From the age of 17 and for 22 years Evelyn lived in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.
She and her husband Kert, whom she married in the camp, have been living in Hoppers Crossing for seven years.
James says Evelyn has been responsible for bringing people from the local refugee communities into the garden and inspiring them to contribute.
“Evelyn is a leader in her community and she has become the heart and soul of the garden.
“She has recruited and organised the community members to work in the gardens and is a driving force behind the whole thing,” he said.
Another key figure in the garden community, and one of its great success stories, is another Karen refugee Bee See Maw Kay.
He spent many traumatic years in refugee camps in Thailand, lost his father and some of his family in the conflict there and has suffered depression and dislocation.
Several months ago ‘Bee See’ was without work and suffering severe depression.
Now, thanks to the garden project at Werribee, BeeSee is an intern park ranger who hopes to become a fully-fledged Parks Victoria Ranger.
“At first Bee See was timid and almost afraid,” James said. “But we’ve watched him blossom into a real leader in his community.”
“He’s gone from pulling up weeds to learning about machinery and he’s studying horticulture,” James said.
The program has seen the establishment of a private horticultural college at Werribee to provide training opportunities for members of local refugee communities to help them find paid work in the local market garden and nursery industries.
“Giving people from the communities skills they can translate into jobs is one the more rewarding aspects of being involved in the program,” he said.
James said the knowledge and skills exchange has been reciprocal.
“Our rangers say that having the Karen people work alongside them has been as much of a learning experience for them as for the volunteers,” he said.
The local refugee communities in Wyndham, particularly the Karen, have taken to the job of managing the gardens in significant numbers and in doing so have found themselves re-engaged, with a new sense of purpose and reconnected with their traditional pursuits of gardening and food cultivation.
The project has become a model for both sustainable community gardens and engagement strategies for marginal communities; and, in the heart of one of Australia’s rapidly developing urban districts, the Karen have rediscovered their links with the land.
Following the success of the kitchen garden, volunteers from local communities are now at work in park’s orchard and river park.
The orchard is home to hundreds of varieties of fruit and volunteers are involved in pruning, grafting and propagation work.
They are also working to help to stabilise river banks, reforest areas of woodland and humanely eradicate pests.
Field of Dreams is the story of an Iowa corn farmer who hears voices commanding him to build a baseball diamond in his fields. When he does, what appears is a ghostly team of long lost baseball players none of whom ever reached their full potential.
Anyone who has seen the film will know that the underlying theme is that for those prepared to open their hearts and minds, anything is possible.
James Brincat and the volunteer gardeners of Werribee are proof of this.
The gardens at Werribee have become a field of dreams for many people in local refugee communities.
But unlike Ray Kinsella’s ‘Field of Dreams’, James’ garden is not a figment of imaginary Hollywood fancy, but a living, breathing, productive garden; and perhaps more importantly the cultural and spiritual focus for a group of people lost in time and space.