Kent has been known as the Garden of England for centuries. It's also home to the White Cliffs of Dover, which have become a battle ground for migrant rights in the UK – a symbol of hostility as the Conservative government cracks down on asylum seekers, and a symbol of hope for the tens of thousands who make the dangerous journey in small boats across the Channel. The location, then, is doubly apt as the site for Bees & Refugees’ first farm.
Founded by Syrian activist Ali Alzein in 2020 to support newly settled refugees in London, Bees & Refugees aims to create a more sustainable and connected world through the art of beekeeping. Now, the environmental justice organisation is renovating a five-acre plot of land, where they will build on their inner-city work of introducing beekeeping as a craft and form of therapy to refugees and local communities.
I visited the farm during its opening weekend in August, making my way from the local train station and past fields of sheep munching on apples. The farm itself feels like a slice of rural paradise, with its mature trees, rescued chickens scratching in the dirt for bugs, vegetable patches and of course the brightly coloured bee hives.
Alzein’s own introduction to beekeeping came through his grandfather, who kept bees on his farm in Syria. When Alzein arrived in the UK as a refugee in 2014, having fled his home city of Damascus following the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution, it was his grandfather who sparked the idea to connect with nature.
“It all started when my grandfather suggested I use my garden to grow food,” Alzein tells me. “I was struggling a lot with my mental health due to many reasons. I ordered a small beehive and it was delivered to my West London apartment by Royal Mail. It was a typical gloomy and grey day, but the second I opened the box the bee’s buzz filled my garden with a beautiful energy that I haven’t felt in so long. I found myself having breakfast by the beehive every morning, and when I saw how positive that was for me I started researching the subject and I got obsessed with bees.”
The Kent farm is a way of sharing the positive benefits of nature with a wider, often city-based community.
“We are creating a sanctuary for our community, a sanctuary for the bees and for all those who visit and can enjoy the healing we hope it provides,” says Heidi Sarah Affi, Director of Development. “We are creating a space where those with limited access to green space, meaningful connections to nature, relaxation and alternative therapies can gather to create beautiful relationships with their new homes or build new connections. Community connection is a core part of social and emotional health – we believe community includes the bees.”
There was an atmosphere of relaxed activity at the launch event, where people could attend a beekeeping workshop, plant seeds, create artwork for a banner, play badminton or just sit in the sunshine drinking a cup of berry juice whilst listening to dance music and patting Ali’s dog Zaatar.
“I grew up in Damascus and my grandpa and his sisters owned farms in an area called Al-Ghouta, which literally means ‘a garden filled with water, vegetables and food trees,’” Ali tells me. “Every weekend we used to go there and spend quality time with the whole family. At our farm launch, some of the Syrians who were there said ‘Thank you for bringing Al Ghouta to us’ – a comment that makes me tear up even now.”
As the Conservative government makes life more difficult day by day for both immigrants to the UK and anyone who wants to protect the natural world, Ali believes it’s important to stay connected to one another.
“I think this project is a vehicle or a means to create a strong community that supports refugees, but not only refugees, because our oppressors are all interconnected,” he says. “We need to realise that all marginalised communities must work together to fight back. We want to use our platforms to advocate for social justice for all. Bees & Refugees is not just about beekeeping; it is about raising our voices against hostile policies that limit refugees' movement and access to safety.”