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Olivia Wilson

When I’m not in the fields growing or in the studio with SSAW, I work with Sneh Jani and Olivia Head on Bread & Roses - a charity that aims to improve the integration of refugee and asylum seeking women through floristry workshops. We founded in 2016 at the height of Europe’s “refugee crisis”, when like many others we felt we couldn’t passively watch what was happening unfold before our eyes. We were both disheartened and encouraged by the fact that the humanitarian response at the main two refugee camps in France, Calais and Dunkirk, were almost entirely run by start-up charities as it made us feel it was possible for us to offer something ourselves.

Other initiatives had sprung up in London around the same time and together we formed an ecosystem of support which has plugged some of the many gaps in provision for people seeking refuge. Our mission was (and still is) to provide a forum for women to gain skills, knowledge, and confidence to better navigate the challenges of rebuilding their lives in the UK, using floristry as a vehicle to do so. The concept was based on the idea that life must be about more than just surviving, but thriving instead.

Earliest records of the phrase 'bread and roses' go back to 200 AD. It has inspired poems, folks songs and even political slogans: In a speech over a hundred years ago Rose Schneiderman campaigning for women's suffrage wrote “What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist - the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread but she must have roses too.”

We decided to take these words literally and to try and offer refugee women something as pleasing as it was practical, to support them along in their journey. We have since been struck by just how many of our participants have commented on the joy and happiness being around flowers brings them. Creating a supportive environment where women can be creative and benefit from the calming effect of being surrounded by flowers, feels particularly poignant when so many of the women lack the financial means for anything other than the bare essentials of living.

This feels perhaps even more relevant now than it did at the inception, since funding has been repeatedly cut to even the most basic services and the provision of welfare support relies on the third sector. Fundamentally, the system that ‘processes’ asylum applications is broken. It is not uncommon for participants on our programmes to have been waiting for over ten years to receive status: A decade of life with no right to work and little to no recourse to public funds; a decade of life with the patent desire to be active and contributing members of society, but instead left waiting, relying on meagre handouts which cover only the bare minimum.

In some ways flowers are the opposite of the bare minimum, more often than not seen as a luxury only the wealthy can afford, as extravagant bunches given as lavish presents or private gardens that are not accessible to all. This is not the way I see flowers, I see them as nature’s gifts, something we should all be able to enjoy, reminders of the beauty of the natural world we all share, a world that needs to be protected and preserved for everyone not just a privileged few. The giving of the flowers is the giving of a reminder of the very essentials of life, of its beauty, its fragility, its preciousness. I believe that nature is a human right, that the liberty to access and enjoy the natural world is inherent to our existence. Indeed, the practice of tending to gardens and bringing flowers indoors is ages old in so many cultures across the world. In Egypt it can be traced back to as early as 2,500 BCE. When access to green spaces is so fraught with inequality, having the opportunity to be surrounded by nature’s bounty, feels more and more like re-addressing an imbalance of modern life than an unnecessary indulgence.

With this also comes the necessity of being stringent about our standards for the ways in which the flowers we use are grown. We are committed to trying to keep our supply chains as ethical as possible. Ensuring fair wages and working conditions are fundamental to our ethos: the exploitation of a mainly female and people of colour workforce, in countries where pesticide use and working conditions are less regulated, is of huge concern to us. Working directly with British flower suppliers allows us not only to ensure that we reduce our carbon footprint and the damaging effects of pesticides, but have transparency that we have a slavery-free supply chain.

Being an ecologically responsible florist is also hugely important to us not only from an environmental perspective but an anthropological one too. When you consider that climate is secondary only to conflict as a cause of the displacement of people, positioning ourselves as an eco conscious florist is paramount. The UN projects that there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050 (The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace Wells).

As I write this piece, the world seems to be either drowning in a deluge of floods or ablaze with wildfires sweeping across the globe and war only further fanning those flames. This month our screens might be filled with scenes from Afghanistan, but battles are being fought in so many different territories that news of them has become relegated to sound bites, small paragraphs we scan over, numbed to the horrifying statistics. The same goes for the realities of climate change. There is little wonder we are all experiencing cognitive dissonance, it is hard not to feel helpless with the sheer volume of bad news but as the IPCC report so clearly lays out, there can be no denying that human activity is responsible for the destruction of our natural world.

There has never been more need for personal and public proaction, we simply cannot rely on policy. We need to do what we can, and one thing we can do is use our purchasing power to support organisations that are doing their bit for people and the planet. There is no longer any excuse to support systems that exploit not only resources but residents of countries less developed than our own. Raising awareness against the exploitation of the often women-led workforce in the global floriculture industry and supporting a movement of mainly women flower farmers in the UK, is an increasing part of our advocacy work.

The therapeutic benefits of working with flowers are well documented. Multiple studies have proven that flowers have a healing effect on those who receive them as a gift or who have them in their homes. Results show long term positive effects on moods with study participants reported feeling less agitated, anxious and depressed, feeling more secure and relaxed, demonstrating an increased life satisfaction overall. We try to harness these holistic outcomes and use it in conjunction with the confidence building opportunity that comes with mastering a new skill, to help increase wellbeing and to provide a safe space to explore creativity and self-expression. For many of our participants, this is the one small opportunity in the week for them to do something just for themselves.

Image credits Keymea Yazdanian

In addition to the floristry workshops we provide English language lessons and integrated signposting to key services. These are crucial components of the programme which allow us to ensure that our participants are connected to a network of specialist services that can provide the dedicated support that they might need. Our intention is for these sections to be informed by our participants themselves, recognising that having lived experience they will have a far greater understanding of the emotional and practical support they need than any advice we may be able to offer. Our aim is to facilitate an opportunity to share their wealth of experience with each other, to help them to access resources and to increase their sense of agency, sadly so often diminished by the alienating asylum seeking system.

Being involved in Bread and Roses is incredibly humbling, I am reminded every time of the positive effect flowers can have and I hope that even just providing an actual opportunity to stop and smell the roses might momentarily alleviate some of the stresses of the hardships our participants face.

We have exciting plans to grow a network of florists who share our principles and we hope that in 2022 we will be able to pilot our first programme run by an external organisation supported by us, so that we will be able to offer more programmes to more women, expanding our offering beyond London. Do get in touch if you would like to find out more.


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