The Natural Growth Project - Freedom From Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture)

key data

London, UK
Implemented by: 
Freedom From Torture; Colindale Allotment Association; Gillespie Park Local Nature Reserve
Started in: 
January, 1992
Survivors of tortures living in UK
Grants from Ecominds (Big Lottery Fund), 'Edible Islington' (Local Government), and donations from individuals.

Freedom from Torture provides survivors of torture and their families with medical and social care, practical assistance and psychological and physical therapies. The organisation also provides documentation of torture through medico-legal reports, seeks to influence the public and decision makers to ensure the rights of survivors are upheld and conducts multidisciplinary training and capacity building work for organisations working with survivors of torture around the world. Taking a holistic approach to rehabilitation, the Natural Growth Project is one of a range of creative therapeutic programmes offered, including art and music therapy.  Freedom from Torture’s Natural Growth Project combines horticulture and psychotherapy, taking as its fundamental premise that everyone, everywhere, whatever their experiences, has a continuing relationship with nature. It is designed to address the challenges many torture survivors find in verbally communicating past experiences and present problems. For some of their most physically and mentally damaged clients, being in the open and in touch with the elements can bring instant relief, and open the path to extraordinary change. The psychotherapeutic aim of the project is to facilitate growth and healthy development 129 within the individual, allowing nature to do its work, while at times reflecting on clients' experiences. The project is currently staffed by three psychotherapists and a project worker, the latter also dealing with all aspects of horticulture. Some of the work takes place in a small, fenced-off garden section at the London centre, whilst the rest is located on allotments in Colindale. After an initial assessment for the project, clients are placed according to their needs in one of several options: for extremely fragile clients, the enclosed garden provides a secure space for individual and group psychotherapeutic work. On the allotments, one group meets weekly for two hours on a communal plot, together with a psychotherapist and the project worker. Another group with similar staff support meets either weekly or fortnightly for a day; some of these clients, being more robust, hold their own keys and can visit the allotments whenever they wish. A weekly men's gardening group also offers the opportunity of working together on outdoor horticultural activities rather than psychotherapy. In winter, some of the groups meet indoors, engaging in projects usually with a nature-related theme, such as producing mosaic paving stones destined for the garden, each representing an aspect of their experience.

Identifying the need: 

For torture survivors who have experienced the extreme limits of inhumanity, it is often necessary to introduce a different way of working, where traditional talking therapy is not considered helpful or accessible to the individual. This may be appropriate for those who are too traumatised to access language at all and others who need some form of interim medium. A combination of talking and practical work is enormously helpful; here communication can begin to address the most difficult of topics, while one is seemingly engaged in mundane gardening tasks. For some individuals, simply being enclosed in a room with a therapist can echo prison experiences. When one works outdoors in nature, immediately a different dynamic is established. In nature we are connected with a wider world; the torture experience becomes a part of life, rather than the only thing a client is thinking about. The healing process can begin. For survivors participating in the project, the reduction of nightmares, flashbacks, terror and other symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are typically monitored. Equally importantly, members of the group have moved from a position of being unable to express themselves, and feeling extremely isolated, to one of being part of a robust social structure, making and valuing their own and others’ contributions. A sense of ownership and belonging to this garden evolves; a small kind of homeland is created, from which clients can venture forth emboldened in their lives. The possibility for a client to plant a memorial shrub, and tend it as part of their process of grieving, has also proved enormously helpful.


Sustaining a client’s interest in the project when they are dealing with difficult circumstances in their lives can be very challenging. However, the cyclical aspect of nature helps individuals understand that these experiences too will pass. Working outdoors in winter can be difficult; hence the development of different indoor winter projects for this season. Sourcing continuation funding for the project is an ongoing challenge.