Garden city helps new arrival bloom | ELPNZ

Garden city helps new arrival bloom

22 July 2015

Shah Jan Jaffery is worried about her seedlings.

Early heat and forecast hail could hurt the precious, tender aubergine, chilli, lettuce, peppers, Chinese cabbage, garlic chives and red okra plants that she has lovingly raised mostly from seed.
“I’m thinking about that hail. I don’t have a cover for most of my plants,” Shah says, casting a protective eye over her vegetables and herbs.
Gardening is an interest she has in common with Rachael Drace, who has been her volunteer English teacher for two years.
“When we were matched, I thought I’d be able to teach Shah all about gardening in New Zealand, but she’s teaching me. Her garden is much better than mine,” says Rachael, a retired physiotherapist.
“I’m just so thankful to find someone who shares my passion for gardening and family.”
The pair soon began visiting garden centres and the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. At other times, they cooked traditional Afghan cuisine.
“We were getting into gardening and cooking and it was such fun that I realised it was engaging her more. Now I try to turn everything into a lesson.”
Shah’s growing skills with English have given her confidence to make friends wherever she is – at the gardens, in the bus or with her neighbours.
She didn’t get a chance to exercise her green fingers back home in Kabul, Afghanistan, or during the 16 long years she and her six children spent
in a refugee camp in India. “We couldn’t garden in India.
It was too hot and you had to pay for the water. It was a bad time for us, but I feel much, much better in New Zealand,” says the grandmother of
nine, who came to New Zealand as a refugee in 2007, speaking no English.
Gardening also helped both women cope with the Canterbury earthquakes. “A few years ago, when we were still recovering from the earthquakes,
the garden was very calming,” says Rachael.
Initially, Shah lived in Dallington. Her house – and garden – were red zoned. So she did the sensible thing. She dug up and moved her roses and dahlias. At first she wasn’t impressed with the tiny garden at the Papanui house she moved to. 
But with her children’s help, she turned it into a blooming oasis with raised beds and carefully disciplined and nurtured plants.
“She can pick up a bit of a rose bush and stick it in the garden. I think: ‘It won’t grow’,” says Rachael. “And the next time I come it will have grown
leaves. She’s magic.”
Shah has a secret beyond sheep pellets and mushroom soil for vegetables, and blood and bone for roses.
“I’m always talking to my plants. ‘How are you? What do you want? What do you need? Water? Sheep pellets? Shade?’ Sometimes they say,
‘I’m good’.”

Another organic project has been to record Shah’s life. “Shah told me all about her childhood,” says Rachael. “I went home and wrote it out. She copied it into her journal. One day, her grandchildren will be really interested. They won’t believe the sort of life she’s had.

“We’ve gone over her childhood, going to school, getting engaged at seven and married at 16. It’s the whole history, good times and bad.

“Right from the time she was a little girl she wanted to go to school. Her sister decided she didn’t want to, but Shah took off to school with her
grandmother and did her homework. In another world, she’d have a PhD in something if she’d just had a chance.”
Shah has weathered many storms. “In the past, life was hard. Bringing up the children mostly on my own was hard,” Shah says.
“Now I want only good times. A good life. I want to do something for my children. I want them to have a good life, good jobs and families – for both girls and boys.”
Shah’s daughter Fiza says gardening helps her mum feel more at home in Christchurch.
“This is the house she’s always dreamed of. She’s had a really tough time but now she’s more peaceful and more relaxed than I’ve ever seen her.”
Training to be a volunteer home tutor for English Language Partners helped Rachael flourish too.
“The training was excellent and I learned an awful lot. I didn’t know anything about refugees and what they go through.
“And, although we’re pretty independent, I know English Language Partners is there if I need them.”
By the time Rachael is getting ready to leave Shah’s place, the wind has picked up. The heat dissipates. There won’t be hail today.

Rosemary North / Photos: Simon Forsyth