Garden to grow friends

Sri Samy at the site of the Growing Friends community garden. 241753_02 Picture: GARY SISSONS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Seeds of self-sufficiency are set to be sown for refugee families struggling to put food on the table.

Friends of Refugees is transforming its stark industrial warehouse in Springvale with eight community garden beds, including a pumpkin patch, herbs, tomatoes, greens and peppers.

The ‘Growing Friends’ project’s aim is to not only cultivate food but friendships, training and healing among the community’s most vulnerable.

“We are working with people who are ‘long term disadvantaged’ due to their age, lack of English and job skills, mental and physical health issues and are unable to find work in the mainstream community,” Friends of Refugees founder and chief executive Sri Samy said.

“It is important that we are able to help these people to achieve a level of self-sufficiency so they do not have to rely on charities to live their day to day life.”

With time, as the garden blooms, Ms Samy hopes native birds will return to its bare yard. And that it becomes a hub for the wider community.

As an offshoot, food-swap meets and conversation classes are expected to form.

“I’ve found people learn English faster through conversations,” Ms Samy says.

“Plus, spending time with plants is just relaxing. A lot of people are really hanging out to setting up this garden.”

The project received $4000 in seed funding from Greater Dandenong Council.

With the help of VicHealth, the charity is also installing garden pods at refugee families’ homes.

During Covid, refugees were among the hardest-hit with few welfare safety nets.

At its height, Friends of Refugees supported more than 225 families with food a week – up from 80 pre-pandemic.

Even now, demand for food is up 50 per cent from early 2020.

Ms Samy said crowded share-houses were returning to the 2012 crisis levels that led to the charity being set up.

Again, Ms Samy is seeing more three-bedroom homes being shared by up to three families.

“People are going homeless because they can’t make the rent. They’re trying to get help from friends where they can.”

With fewer donations, the charity would have struggled to cope but for the council’s $550,000 Covid material relief program to agencies, Ms Samy said.

Many of the new needy were international students, asylum seekers, permanent residents and temporary visa holders who lost jobs during Covid and were ineligible for JobSeeker.

Some were asylum seekers denied work rights. Some had been “kicked off Centrelink for no reason”.

Others had disability or mental health issues, meaning they relied on community goodwill to survive.

“From my experience, people who are seeking asylum just want to be safe and live a normal life just like us.

“It’s sad that the Federal Government doesn’t care for them. It’s all about proving a point that they’re economic refugees rather than human beings seeking protection.

“Most of the people seeking asylum settle in and contribute back to the community and are very valuable members of our society.”

Meanwhile, the charity is crowd-funding a new fridge truck to deliver food in the South East.

Its secondhand truck is suffering from wear and tear after carrying 1320 tonnes of food in the past six years.

Currently, 2000 people rely on the truck for food each week. It also stocks Friends of Refugee’s pantry serving 120 families a week.

To donate to the food truck cause, go to