When Saeed Hajian migrated to Australia he brought with him over 17 years of experience as a horticulturalist, which he now shares with Red Cross' Putting Down Roots program.
Using his expertise as a horticulturalist, Saeed spends his Saturday mornings volunteering at the Red Cross community garden in inner-Adelaide, working alongside Red Cross staff and participants to care for the garden, designed to help asylum seekers learn about growing their own food.
Saeed migrated to Australia from Iran in 2012 with his wife and two sons, aged seven and fifteen. He also brought with him over 17 years of experience as a horticulturalist, but has not been able to secure a job in this field. Instead, he works as a machine operator at a factory, but loves to use his professional skills in his volunteer work.
"When I came to Australia I found it to be a multicultural country with people of different backgrounds and experiences."
"To help me settle here I found out about local agriculture, which methods are used for producing vegetables in Australia, in which parts of Australia which types of vegetables are produced."
While Saeed was doing a TAFE course, he was introduced to Australian Red Cross through one of his fellow students. He was excited to learn of a gardening project that Red Cross was looking to develop and put up his hand to help out.
The project, Putting Down Roots, involved sourcing a location and materials to establish a community garden that asylum seekers would nurture. In doing so, the participants learn about growing their own food, and have regular social contact with each other and Red Cross volunteers and staff.
Putting Down Roots is one of the greatest programs I have seen about agricultural production in my life. The main difference that I found is that it simplified everything for the participants. I'm used to teaching other people in an academic format, a class room, using a powerpoint, one way communication, the teacher speaks and others listen. But in Putting Down Roots it's two way, it has a lot of advantages for both sides."
"When we started this project, I was so excited, because all of these people participated and worked with each other, and established a very nice garden. We grew some vegetables, and in the second phase we started some cooking sessions and prepared meals with the food we'd grown. We shared it together and had a lovely time."
Saeed speaks multiple languages including Persian, Farsi and Arabic, meaning he can speak with many of the participants. This has helped him establish relationships with the participants, and build their trust.
Zabi, one of the participants, an Afghani man who is seeking asylum said, "Saeed is very helpful, he explains very well about the garden. If I don't know something I ask him in Farsi, because English is my second language. We are very friendly and close to each other."
Zabi appreciates the garden so much he now volunteers to help new participants.
"I enjoy it very much. When I'm at the garden I feel relaxed, it refreshes my mind. When I feel sad, I come here to water the garden. When I do the watering, it's joyful for me."
The plus effect
Saeed said he can relate to the participants in some ways because of his cultural background and because he has had to move away from his home country.
"I've learnt a lot of things through this project, technically and about the culture of people, how I should respect others' beliefs, how I can consider other people's ideas."
"Most of the participants in Putting Down Roots are asylum seekers, their life here is not easy. Most of their families are outside of Australia, they are waiting for their visa status here, they don't know if or when they can get their permanency here. There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of stress for them."
Saeed says he is able to connect with them by talking about challenges they all face from moving to a new country.
"I talk about my problems here and I believe it brings a benefit for both sides. We find that we're not alone in the problems we face, it decreases the pressure and stress."
Saeed has always volunteered, saying it is important to him that he gives back to the community. Coincidentally he also volunteered with Iranian Red Crescent. He now sees his volunteer work as a way to help establish himself professionally in Australia.
"Through volunteering I can develop my skills and experience about Australian agriculture, but also I can establish networks. Step by step I am meeting a lot of people and other specialists."
In the meantime, Saeed continues to enjoy the shared learning between participants and staff, while providing his invaluable expertise to ensure the success of the community garden.
Photo: Australian Red Cross/Morne de Klerk