Refugee’s rooftop garden helps feed Kings Cross homeless

Lionel (not his real name) tends the rooftop garden he has helped to create in inner Sydney. Photo: James BrickwoodLionel – not his real name – is a little shy, by his own admission. He has good reason; he fled his central African homeland of Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries, to seek asylum here. Now he waits in limbo, with limited English, in a country that doesn’t believe he is a refugee.

But when Lionel, a professional agronomist, tends to the rooftop vegetable garden at St Canice’s in Kings Cross, he blossoms.

“I am very happy, the garden is very good” he says. “I like gardens and I want to know more about gardens in Australia.”

The 43-year-old arrived here by plane in April last year to claim asylum. In Burundi, he worked for the government, supervising a team of agronomists. He was the head of crop production in one of the country’s 17 provinces.

“We showed the population how to cultivate, how to grow,” he says.

Lionel worked chiefly in rural areas, providing seeds, fertiliser, chemicals to control pests and teaching agricultural methods. But his skills also made him a successful recruiter for an opposition party, attracting the ire of the Burundi government. After death threats and three stints in prison, he fled.

Rob Caslick, who runs the Inside Out Organic Soup Kitchen at St Canice’s, discovered Lionel’s talents almost by accident. Wanting to grow fresh produce for the charity’s malnourished clients, Caslick sought to work alongside the Jesuit Refugee Service, which is based above the church and runs a shelter next door. Lionel was one of the service’s new clients.

“Lionel was very keen, but his English wasn’t that great so he was fairly quiet,” Caslick recalls.

“I asked if he would like to come meet the designers. At the end of the meeting I said, ‘Lionel, is there anything that you’d like to plant?’ And he produced this beautiful hand-written two-pager of all these vegetables and herbs and fruits.”

In a mix of English and French, he had scrawled more than 100 possible plants across the back of a prepaid mobile phone bill – including notes on what would grow well together and what would not. “Lionel’s List” became something of a roadmap for the garden, although some of his initial ambitions had to be slightly curtailed.

“We didn’t have the garden space to do [all] that but we definitely incorporated a lot of his ideas,” Caslick recalls.

“For me, the essence of what we were creating was in that list. We were blown away.”

Almost a year in the making, the first seeds were planted in October and the garden began to sprout vegetables in November. Beetroot, tomato, chilli, capsicum, zucchini, mint and eggplant are now harvested each Wednesday to prepare the organic meals that feed the area’s homeless and disadvantaged later that night.

Lionel also helped build the garden, hauling pallets back and forth and assembling the underlying mix of newspaper, soil, compost, mulch and manure. He says creating the garden was difficult at times, but working with Caslick is “fun” and “much appreciated”.

“We sometimes meet complicated situations and we try to think together in order to find solutions,” he says.

Among the wisdom Lionel imparted was an irrigation shortcut he taught villagers back in Burundi.

“We took a plastic bottle and put holes in it with a very thin knife,” he explains. The water inside the bottle slowly seeps out, providing sustained irrigation.

Lionel’s initial application for asylum was rejected, and he now sweats on a decision from the Refugee Review Tribunal. But without a lawyer he is in a precarious position. He wants to find permanent work here but is unsure whether his skills are wanted.

“My job was to teach,” he says. “I don’t know if there are jobs to teach like this. I don’t know if [Australians] need to learn about gardening.”

Maeve Brown, shelter project co-ordinator at the Jesuit Refugee Service, says Lionel’s situation is all too common among asylum applicants. Their lives are characterised by uncertainty about whether they will be able to keep living in Australia, and often abject poverty, she says. Among her clients, who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness and destitution, she often sees signs of depression and physical sickness.

“The waiting and uncertainty takes its toll on people’s health and mental health,” she says. “After a year of waiting, people have lost a lot of hope.”

That limbo period can last upwards of two years, Brown says, and there is “very, very little in terms of free legal help”. Those who arrive by plane are typically given work rights and healthcare access, but these can be swiftly revoked if, for example, the person is shown to have travelled on a fake passport.

And finding work is difficult, even for professionals like Lionel. Foreign qualifications are often not recognised in Australia, asylum seekers frequently lack sufficient English skills and employers are often unwilling to hire an applicant who could be deported months later. Only about 40 per cent of applicants who come by plane receive government financial assistance, Brown says.

Caslick hopes the garden will continue to benefit from Lionel’s expertise. He is working on a horticultural therapy program to be run at St Canice’s in conjunction with St Vincent’s Hospital, which he hopes will elicit the same positive effect as it had on Lionel.

“He’s a quiet fellow but he’s opened up a little bit,” Caslick says. “He walks around with a bit more authority in the garden. I’m assuming he feels a bit of ownership.”

Lionel has his own plans, if he is allowed to stay in Australia. He wants to study agriculture, particularly the differences between cultivation here and in Burundi. And he wants his friends here and in Burundi to know about his little green oasis, tucked away on a Kings Cross rooftop.

“One day I am going to take a picture here and show my friends,” he says. “I am going to tell them, ‘this is my job’.”

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Matthew Spiranovic backs Wanderers coach Tony Popovic to pursue a career overseas

Western Sydney Wanderers and Socceroos defender Matthew Spiranovic supports coach Tony Popovic pursuing a managerial role in Europe.

Speaking on Tuesday in Melbourne where he joined the national squad in preparation for the Asian Cup, Spiranovic said Popovic compared favourably with any coach he had played under in a career that has included stints in Germany and Japan.

While Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew now appears to be in the box seat to take the Crystal Palace position left vacant after Neil Warnock was sacked, Spiranovic believes that it was inevitable that Popovic – who had been linked with the Palace job – would one day end up in a similar role.

“It’s a huge accolade to be chased by a Premier League side, and knowing Popa, how ambitious he is, I’m sure he wants to take his coaching to the next level,” Spiranovic said.

“I put Popa at the very top of the list when it comes to coaches I’ve played under. I think the sky’s the limit for him. I think it’s a matter of time before he moves to better things.”

Spiranovic, 26, said he would be entirely understanding if such a day arose.

“Of course,” he said. “As a player you strive to reach the highest levels and if the right opportunity came my way, I’d have to consider it.”

It has been a whirlwind few months for the Wanderers, who anchor the bottom of the A-League table without a victory, a stark contrast to their Asian Champions League triumph. Spiranovic could not put his finger on the reason for the side’s malaise but believed it was not the pay dispute that marred the recent trip to Morocco for the Club World Cup.

“I don’t want to associate the pay dispute things with our performances because we wanted to make sure that that sort of stuff didn’t relate to our football and our performances,” he said. “That was very clear from both the players and the coaching staff that mentally we wanted to be switched on. I don’t think that affected us at all.”

He conceded that the immense amount of travel the team had endured had probably contributed to their poor form.

“People like to say that European teams play 40-plus games a year, but they don’t have 23 players and a salary cap. I think we have faced numerous challenges along the way, and we’ve overcome a lot of them, so that’s why people struggle to find the reason why [form is poor].”

“I think it’s only a few small details that we need to change and I think we’ll start turning those results our way.

“Everyone’s still very determined. Everyone wants to achieve things. We still are striving for a title at the end of the season.”

Spiranovic is an old hand within the Socceroos group, as one of just a handful of survivors from the 2011 Asian Cup. He missed out on minutes during that tournament, but was a key cog in this year’s World Cup in Brazil. Having overcome an ankle injury that kept him away from international duty since that tournament, Spiranovic is looking forward to the chance to play on home soil, believing that Ange Postecoglou’s team is in better shape than it was then.

“I think the team’s spent more time together. There’s been more a lot more time to work on things and improve, and we’ve seen that in some of the friendly games we’ve had since the World Cup.”

“You take a lot of belief and confidence out of a World Cup, especially when you feel like you can match it with some of the best in the world.”

He allayed any concerns that his injury was still troubling him.

“I’m feeling really good. Since I had the operation it’s been pretty much smooth sailing. My return was in the ACL final and I haven’t had any real problems since. I’m feeling better each week.”

“I didn’t have the perfect pre-season. I was coming back, doing my rehab with my ankle. But now I have 10 or so games under my belt, so I’m feeling pretty good.”

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TOPICS: Farewell to Harry step in the right direction

DECLUTTER: Herald photographer Simone De Peak, left. One Direction’s Harry Styles was last seen at Waikiki, and right, letting go of a unique opener. Picture: Simone De PeakNEWCASTLE Herald photographer extraordinaire Simone De Peak has been decluttering her life.

Today she ends her year-long odyssey.

Simone has been documenting her experiences of discarding personal possessions at theherald老域名.au and her @simonedepeak Instagram account.

‘‘I’ve been a collector all my life,’’ she told Topics.

‘‘There’s generations in my family where we’ve all collected something – I’ve inherited that gene, I guess.’’

Simone’s journey, called ‘‘365 days of decluttering’’, involved taking a photograph of an item each day, before discarding it.

‘‘If I went on holidays, I took items with me,’’ she said.

She folded a life-size Harry Styles (of boy band One Direction) cardboard cutout in her suitcase on a trip to Hawaii and left it on a deckchair on Waikiki Beach.

She purchased the cutout while covering a story of a One Direction merchandise caravan in Newcastle.

Another highlight was leaving behind a kangaroo scrotum wine-bottle opener on a roadtrip to Byron Bay.

‘‘I decluttered it next to a kangaroo roadkill,’’ Simone said.

‘‘Boy did I get some looks taking a photo of that.’’

As well as discarding items in interesting places, friends and colleagues claimed some, others were sold at markets and some went to op-shops.

So how does she feel now her journey is at an end?

‘‘It’s been quite a cleansing experience – almost like a weight lifted off me,’’ she said.

‘‘Sometimes I think possessions can bog you down.’’

Topics agrees.

WHEN Topics columnist Tim Connell visited the forementioned One Direction merchandise truck in Newcastle last January, he was informed he resembled band member Niall. Actually, I think Tim is much better looking than Niall. And I’m not just being nice to Tim to make him think I’m doing a good job in his absence.

KAREN PHILLIP: The family therapist has offered tips for the new year.

AT the risk of this Topics column heading in only one direction (a dad joke, if I’ve ever heard one), we’ll move on to discuss New Year’s resolutions.

Caves Beach family therapist Karen Phillip told Topics: ‘‘The new year is the time we reassess our position and make a committed effort to change or improve ourselves or life.

‘‘We can look at past issues and decide we will no longer tolerate the same behaviours of others or even ourselves.’’

The problem is, most resolutions are discarded by February, she says.

So what can people do to make their resolution stick?

Dr Phillip says we should: analyse what we want to change and set a time frame to achieve it; write down a resolution and put it on the fridge or somewhere where it will be seen; determine steps to fulfil the goal; involve others to keep us accountable; focus on the end result.

Doesn’t sound too hard, does it?

Aiming for zero deaths on Mount Isa roads

MOUNT Isa remains fatality free so far these school holidays, keeping in line with last year’s figures.

District Crime Prevention Co-ordinator Cath Purcell said fatalities for the period of December 2013 to January 2014 were zero and Mount Isa police hoped for the same result this year.

“Christmas fatalities for the period of December 2013 to the end of January 2014 resulted in zero deaths,” she said.

“In the Mount Isa District there have been four crashes so far for the calendar year of 2014 resulting in five fatalities.

“In 2013 there were seven crashes and seven fatalities.

“Two of those fatalities were on private properties, one was from a quad bike accident and the other was a trail bike.

“Five deaths occurred on Queensland roads.”

Fatalities that occur on private property are not included in Queensland’s road deaths tolls.

Acting Inspector Graham Boyd commended police officers and the Mount Isa District for remaining fatality free so far these holidays.

“Due to a visible police presence, favourable weather conditions and a responsible attitude from the driving public, Mount Isa District remains fatality free for this Christmas period,” he said.

“On behalf of the Mount Isa Police District I wish everyone a safe and enjoyable journey over the holiday period.”

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Fire station’s hose tower dismantled

■DISMANTLED: BCG Engineering site co-ordinator Declan Kearney and employees dismantle the Mount Isa Fire Station’s condemned hose tower.A CONDEMNED hose tower at the Mount Isa Fire Station was dismantled by crane last week.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services acting inspector for Mount Isa Eric McBain said the tower was used to hang wet hoses, but was no longer needed when the hoses were made of canvas material.

The tower, visible at the corner of the Barkly Highway and West Street, had not been used for about a decade and for several years was condemned, he said.

“We want to use that space in future – maybe [for] another storage area,” Mr McBain said.

BCG Engineering dismantled the tower last Monday.

Site co-ordinator Declan Kearney said the 35-metre high tower was cut into three pieces. A crane was used to lay it on the ground where it was dismantled into smaller pieces.

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