STEP ACROSS THE BORDER.
Our Visit To Berlin.
A blog by Rasheeqa Ahmad.
During 2015-16, a collective of healthcare practitioners and activists made the Womens Health Project London - a programme of resource-sharing, healthcare support and therapeutic offering to women who had been part of the criminal justice system, their allies and families, and women from refugee and asylum-seeking communities. Our project aimed to look at what health means in the broadest sense of the word – understanding that our personal health is intimately linked with the social, political and environmental contexts we live in.
The project offered different combinations of workshops, classes, free clinic and a library to empower women through information exchange and access to resources, as part of creating networks of shared knowledge, support and solidarity. The project was developed in response to deeply-entrenched systemic inequality and injustice in our societies that causes as a direct consequence, profound physical and emotional health disruption in women from backgrounds of deprivation, of class-based, race-based and colonial oppression and often with least recourse to effective, real, loving healthcare.
As a community medical herbalist, I supported participant women’s health through consultations and treatment with plant medicine, while comrades in the project offered bodywork, focusing sessions, nutrition-based knowledge-sharing workshops, yoga sessions, reiki and sound healing. We supported one-to-one and in groups with women living in London in temporary accommodation, frequently in housing instability, with no ability to make income, and with experienced histories of war violence, rape, abuse, loss of family, loss of home and ongoing post-traumatic stress. The pain they had gone through and were going through was heavy and we connected with them in this and tried to offer love and support in their journeys. Many of the women responded that the regular programme brought some joy and support as stories could be shared and they could be together - receiving bodywork, singing or exchanging knowledge in self-care. The programme was temporarily funded though and happened in a UK political climate in which the very women’s centre that housed it was being closed down along with a great swathe of voluntary sector organisations supporting women and others experiencing poverty, inequality and social injustice. So these struggles are ongoing, and the massive system that perpetuates it is ongoing. Which gives us a political impetus in our work.
Following this activity together, Caro, comrade in the Womens Health Project, musician and sound healer amongst many other skills of her being, set up True North Health, a community interest company with the aims of enabling and organising integrated health projects at grassroots community level. We are in the initial stages of planning bi-annual events bringing together healthcare practitioners and activists to make connections between personal and collective health in our communities and to empower us to work politically and practically in creating health justice. Through sharing knowledge, resources and solidarity in taking care of ourselves and each other, whilst challenging a global economic system that protects the few and ensures continuation of inequality.
Which brings us to Berlin!
We were invited to be part of Step Across The Border, an Erasmus transnational project between Berlin, London and Marseille and taking place over 2 years between 2017-18. SATB is an international grassroots initiative, aimed at using and developing basic creative education techniques with socially marginalised people. Its catalyst was the inspiring work by Refugee Community Kitchen, based in Calais, "Feeding People without Judgement", providing over 2000 nutritious meals every day, with an extensive volunteer network which has its roots in the UK counter culture scene. Our partner organisations are: l'Embobineuse (Marseille), producing social theatre and Czentrifuga, working with print, graphic art and performance with homeless and socially marginalised people in Berlin. As True North Health, we would bring our experience in supporting women’s health with a combination of sound and movement workshops for women and plant medicine knowledge-sharing. Our TNH team are Caro, Raggi and myself, with our mix of backgrounds in music and sound, refugee law work, movement medicine and herbalism.
And so we stepped across the border in September 2017 to meet our partners and experience the work of Czentrifuga and their friends, and allies in Berlin and beyond - a heartwarming, inspiring and strengthening adventure that brought us from a border-smashing opening ceremony at Aquarium in Kreuzberg with feminist live art from La Felure and a welcome panel with the three partners, to the workshop-house of Czentrifuga near Ostkreuz with their screen printing setup where they make artwork, performance, costumes, music and upcycling deco with folks, to the wondrous DIY garden of Villa Curiosum in the suburbs, to the anarchist Bienenwerder farm outside Berlin where we had our minds blown and hearts opened by art, music, food, welcome, land and herbs at their annual Hoffest.
The whole visit showed me a relative freedom in Berlin for DIY and grassroots social justice activity - coming from a London where public space and buildings are increasingly, ceaselessly stolen from us the people and then sold back as expensive ‘creative’ domains that are still effectively private-owned, where temporary ‘re-space’ ventures are built up by communities then taken away again at the end of tenure by property developers. It stinks to hell and so Berlin was fresh air in this sense, though people say it is less so than it was. But amazing to see the Villa Curiosum with beautiful self-built structures to climb and watch the railway from, with plants spreading around little dwellings and nobody guarding the space - Coost of Czentrifuga told us that social centre spaces like this number the several hundred in Berlin, and there is space and freedom to make and develop them together.
The meeting we had with the people of Czentrifuga at their workshop showed us a spirit of fight and love against injustice and a commitment to supporting people facing lives of oppression and difficulty, especially in response to the refugee crisis of the last years. Talking with friend Deirdre while in Berlin, she told me she felt that the city’s history of border wall and suppression of liberty had left its people with the determination never to allow that again. Also that the city governance supports the broad organisation by people of community housing projects and offers practical assistance and funding towards this movement. This is revelatory! coming from London.
Through our five-day visit, we made good exchange with our partners of Berlin and Marseille, hearing from the theatre makers of L’Embobineuse and Compagnie Peanuts, a colourful and impassioned collective working in that French city of the sea amongst the ‘melting pot’ of cultures and seeking to explore violence, racism and oppression through projects with young people and communities of different backgrounds with Forum Theatre practices and explorations. Raggi catalysed a process work meeting around racism towards refugees which brought some heat to the proceedings and raised questions about our working methods together - perhaps too soon into our acquaintance for it to be effective! but interesting still and somewhat uncomfortable as not all of the group were up for role-playing refugees. We bonded better at the farm through her Bindi Beats session in the giant dusky barn there, dancing together in ecstatic guided music meditation whilst the autumn rain fell outside over green fields, horse carriage dwellings and silent old trees in a land whose history was peopled by freethinkers, heretics and wild folk. Afterwards we heard the story of an artist collective from Borneo who made communal woodcut prints describing the systematic logging of their forests and the obliteration of their ecosystems by corporate force - beautiful, moving, powerful political work whose presence there showed me the meaning of grassroots international solidarity. A fellow from Germany had brought the crew to Berlin to share their work and make workshops with people here and now displayed the pieces on the walls of the barn and showed a film of their journeys together. And then we danced… some daring costumed bands of punk and guile and artifice followed by an incredible dj set by transnational dj team Acid Burrito (from Bogota and Hannover), and talking with Coost in the farm shop with its homemade chilli sauces and farm-grown vegetables. Proper soul and body food. And a beautiful night of sleep on a high bed in a wooden room constructed from old caravans looking out to the falling rain and the fire burning to its embers.
Next morning Gabba was riding out on her horse with its carriage while we breakfasted - she a herb woman of the farm that I connected with through our joint plant walk with around 35 participants in German and English as we followed the trail of the wild medicinals that grew all around the edges of the cultivated fields and tasted her propolis tincture and saw her little herb garden. Shared lessons in how to heal ourself through land connection, how to grow and make medicines, how to know our plant allies. Always amazing to exchange our learnt and lived knowledge with other herbalists throughout the world.
I’m looking forward to the next phase of SATB which will be a visit to the Marseille partners in March - Caro, Raggi and I will journey again together to connect with our comrades there and further develop bonds, ideas, questions and practices around our work in our places challenging xenophobia, racism and the capitalist domination of our societies. To see and get inspiration from people living their beliefs as we did in Germany, negotiating and navigating challenges of living in community, learning the repeated patterns of conflict and trying to re-imagine togetherness, reaching out hands to those across the world and beside us who are beaten and oppressed by that domination, making hope for better understanding, and so for better balance and health of people, planet, universe, all…