We once visited Trill Farm in the midst of a cold, damp February and were struck then by the beauty of the place. However, in the height of summer, it is nothing short of sublime.
Trill is a 300-acre organic farm in the heart of the Devon countryside. In summer, the hills and woodlands brim with wildflowers and wildlife; the organic market garden overflows; the herb garden blooms, providing the ingredients for teas, soaps and natural remedies; a flock of chatty hens roam free; and the Old Dairy Kitchen turns ingredients from the gardens into endless plates of delicious food. Then there are the workshops: the 17th century farm buildings are home to the resident artists and craftspeople of Trill and where you can learn everything from soap-making to carpentry and pottery.
It’s here that we come together for our annual summer camp – the Big Leaf team of Vicki, Kayte, Steve, Alon and Joc; 16 young people from the Middle East and Africa; the wonderful Ugandan-born artist and our great friend, Sam Mukumba and the extended Trill family – to share the home of our wonderful host Romy Fraser, founder of Neal’s Yard Remedies and of Trill itself.
The coach cannot manoeuvre past the narrow bends in the single-track lane that leads to the farm and so the driver, with some relief, drops us at the top. As we walk down to the farm, some of the boys heaving rucksacks, others with little more than a carrier bag, A asks me, “Why have we come? What do we do here?”
These are good questions.
We spend a lot of time thinking about our summer camp at Trill – not just in practical terms of funding, permissions and risk assessments but also the what and the why. It’s a holiday. We want them to relax, to take a break from their worries, to eat well, sleep well, experience something new, be outside and have fun. In this sense, the what is easy, and Romy and Mariel take care of this for us – creating a packed programme of activities encompassing everything from woodwork, pottery and leatherwork to organic gardening, falconry and equine therapy, with games, music and campfires crammed in between. This time, there’s even a treetop ropeway with a zipwire through the woods. However, the week is more than the sum of its activities, and it’s us who need to define the why.
One social worker once asked, “What on earth can you hope to achieve in just a week?”
The answer is this. We look at the common stressors in the lives of recently arrived separated children and we try to take these off their shoulders, for a few days at least.
We aim to give them a chance to breathe. The early stages of resettlement can be exhausting and we often hear complaints of head and stomach pains and see mood swings, lapses in concentration, anger, confusion and even disassociation, made all the more overwhelming by lack of language skills. Here, some find the herbal teas ease their stomachs and help them sleep. We have a timetable, but no one gets up too early and there is much-needed time and space to rest.
We strive to create a sense of community to which we all belong, on equal footing. Everyone is entirely accepted and genuinely welcomed at Trill. None of us needs to explain our presence because everyone knows who we are, and so the unease of life in a new place where our young people can’t always be sure of their reception is lifted.
We want to provide respite from isolation. Separated children arrive alone and have to navigate their new lives without the support of family or friends. Long college holidays mean there’s no requirement to be anywhere or do anything, which can lead to aimless fatigue and little social contact. With no money for independent travel or hobbies, the simplest answer is often to stay in bed, where hopeless boredom can be evaded through sleep. But at Trill there is always something to do, and someone to do it with.
We want to boost language skills and to further their understanding of life in the UK. And we try to get to know them a little, and in turn begin to envisage the best programme of support to offer back home.
Trill Farm enables us to achieve all of this and more.
Its focus on education, and providing new skills through a diverse programme of activities, delivered by a community committed to conservation and sustainability, is what makes Trill so special.
Romy pulls together an incredible team to run the activities. We learn how to build wooden stools with Patrick; design pots and mugs in the pottery with Ali; make natural remedies, skin creams and lotions with Romy and Fiona; harvest vegetables in the garden with Kate and Ash and make bread, pies and kofta with Chris.
Karen from Kingfisher Falconry brings her beautiful birds for the falconry session – though this year some of the boys seem more nervous than usual. “Those birds only come to you when someone is going to die” H whispers, causing some of the others to recoil and shuffle off to a nearby log. But when the kestrel decides to bypass the person wearing the glove and holding the food and head full tilt at the boys, M calmly holds out his (ungloved) hand and she lands gently on him. “I was scared,” he tells us afterwards “but I offered her a place to sit and she liked me so she didn’t hurt me. We have understanding.”
For the second year running, Sue brings her therapy horses, Harry and Honey, who show amazing patience and consent to being nervously patted, then more confidently groomed and hugged before letting the boys walk them in the woods sporting new Rasta-style manes. “They can sense when people are sad,” Sue tells us, just as Harry goes to one of the boys who is standing alone and gently nudges his shoulder. R looks as though he’s been around horses his entire life, and it turns out he has. And when he and Harry jog around the field together, he grins at us for the first time this week.
And then there is Sam and his leatherwork. He talks of the symbolism of belts. “Back home in Uganda,” he tells them “we wear belts to give us strength. We change our clothes, but we keep our belts. The belt you make today will be with you for life.” This speaks to everyone; the belts they make are beautiful and each one is stamped carefully with a personal message.
These activities are much more than something to simply fill the time. Over the past three years coming to Trill we have seen our young people discover new skills and reclaim old ones. Trill has revealed talented artists, potters, carpenters, gardeners and cooks – skills that have later been included on application forms and in personal statements. K enjoyed his time in the kitchen with Chris so much that he now works as a baker in London. A is pushing to find work with horses, and N used his experience in the Trill Farm market garden to get a job on an organic market stall. When we meet them now, they talk excitedly of their time at Trill and ask us over and over, “When can we go back?”
When Mariel tells us, "It's so special having all the boys here...it feels as though the farm is being used exactly as it should be," we know that the feeling is mutual.
One of the benefits of the summer camp is the chance it gives us to get to know these young people. As personal histories, experiences of loss and stories of survival unfold, the labels fade and the person underneath begins to emerge. It’s here that Big Leaf Foundation can offer something more fine-tuned – through learning about who they are, what drives them and where they hope to be, we can begin to explore how best to support them in the future.
It can be difficult for separated children to share their true stories and feelings. The rigours of Home Office interviews and the uncertainty about their future, combined with the fear that honesty about the past might bring suspicion upon them, means they learn to keep quiet. But being immersed in creative activities, which busy the hands and free the mind, also gives space to speak – to recount chosen aspects of their lives, at their own pace and in their own way without the pressure to focus on painful experiences. This year, as before, we see personal stories emerge through art – stamped resolutely on belts, carved indelibly into pottery and wood. L produces the most intricately crafted belt, marked with the word ‘FREEDOM’. We put it next to his almost-perfect clay pot, thrown in a first attempt on the wheel the day before. “You’re an artist,” we observe. “No, I’m a soldier” he replies. “But I didn’t want to be.”
These interactions matter, and it's a privilege to listen, to be trusted, and to bear witness to what is shared with us.
Something that comes up time and again through both academic research and direct experience is this: to be received with respect and kindness, to meet compassion and understanding in the early days after arrival in the UK, and to build a trusted relationship with an adult can make all the difference to the ability of separated children to find their feet and to move forward with a sense of hope and positivity for a secure future here. Our time at Trill Farm might be short, but it gives our young people this.
Before we leave, we look at the work produced throughout the week, and notice the same messages repeated again and again; carved into wood, stamped into leather and etched into pottery. 'Never Give Up', 'Freedom', 'Peace', 'Democracy', 'Justice' and from almost everyone, 'I love you, Mum'.
On the final morning, our brilliant Steve leads the group through the tree-top walk, which culminates in a long and vaguely terrifying zipwire over the woodland. We can hear the hoots of laughter as they make their way across different obstacles and hurdles, each one higher, and more challenging than the last. From the top of the final tree, Steve clips them to the zipwire and reassures them that they can jump, while we stand at the bottom and wait. As L hesitates, refusing to release his grip on Steve, Y shouts up to him “It’s ok. We are here. You are safe.”
To Steve and Alon, we couldn’t have done it without you, and there is not a shred of hope that we will now leave you in peace. To Elmbridge CAN you made a wonderful week entirely possible. To all the social workers, foster carers and key workers, thank you for taking the time to complete the forms, read the kit lists and encourage the boys to attend. And to the fabulous Trill team, there are no words to adequately express our heartfelt thanks for your generosity, patience, humour and compassion. Romy, Mariel, Julian, Sam, Ash and Kate, Digby and Stan, Chris and Anna, Jonathan, Fiona, Patrick, Sue, Karen, Ali and Rosa, thank you.
If you’d like to help us create more opportunities for displaced young people, please visit our Support Us page for ideas on how you can get involved.