Volunteering with SSI means coming into contact with people who are still learning English, but Maegan Williams has quickly learned that you don’t need to speak the same language in order to communicate.
The 25-year-old social work student said volunteering with SSI’s inclusive community gardening project, the Friendship Garden, had showed her how meaningful relationships and a shared purpose can help to create a sense of belonging for people who are new to Australia.
“A lack of shared language can be a barrier between people, but when you’re actually doing work together in the Friendship Garden there’s this whole other language that develops that doesn’t require words in order to communicate,” she said.
“One day, one of the men who work in the garden and I were staking the tomato vines, and after tying a bunch of the vines the man realised I had used the wrong type of tie. We played a bit of charades before I realised what the problem was, but he was able to show me the correct tie to use to ensure the stems were not cut as they continued to grow.
“We had a good laugh about it, and now I will always remember that you need to use a soft material tie when staking tomatoes. So I have not only learnt about gardening, but I’ve learnt how to overcome language and cultural barriers with others.”
Originally from Canada, Ms Williams moved back to Australia when she was five and lived in the regional town of Tamworth until finishing school.
“Growing up in rural NSW I did not have much contact with people who have come from a refugee background. It has been such a rich experience being able to hear small fragments of the stories that have led people to settle in Australia,” she said.
“I have really been encouraged by the perseverance and resilience of so many of the people within the program as many have had to make huge sacrifices to come to Australia and have been faced with many challenges once arriving here.”
When Ms Williams began volunteering with SSI in 2016, she didn’t know much about working in the garden, but quickly realised it wasn’t the gardening itself that brought people back to the Friendship Garden.
“It’s the quality time you get to spend with one another and the friendships that continue to grow every week that keep people coming back. In between the weeding and watering, we share a tea and catch up on the weeks we have all had,” she said.
“One gardener has brought her own seeds in to grow corn from El Salvador and others have their own flower gardens they tend to. People take pride in their gardens, and it is always satisfying when we share lunch to have a salad made up of our own fresh produce!”
The garden gives people a chance to make connections over a shared common goal: making sure the plants grow and thrive, Ms Williams said.
“And that’s ultimately what we all want as well — to grow and thrive within our community, whether we have lived here our whole lives or if we have only just arrived to Australia.”
The SSI Volunteer Program draws on the skills and talents of community members who want to make a difference to the lives of people seeking asylum, refugees, humanitarian entrants and people with disability. Volunteers work in a range of roles that will suit a variety of interests, expertise and availabilities.
Click here to find out more about volunteering with SSI.