Finding comfort and purpose
Gardening brings a taste of home to refugee families in Chicago.
LEAFY mustard greens might taste sour to native Chicagoans, but to Uma Mishra, their flavour is a reminder of homecooked dinners in Bhutan.
The greens fill her rectangular plot at the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in the Albany Park neighbourhood, where a community organisation has transformed an empty lot into patches of soil where refugee families can farm. Against the backdrop of a new political climate, in which President Donald Trump has called for a reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the United States, the farmers here on the Northwest Side find comfort and purpose in the digging, planting and harvesting that made up their life’s work in their home countries.
The farm, which began in 2012, became a non-profit this spring after creating a board of directors last year, said Linda Seyler, executive director and “head weed puller”. The group receives so many requests for garden plots that there’s a wait list of 60 families, Seyler said. Often, newly arrived refugees are so eager to begin growing foods that remind them of home that they reach out to the farm while still learning to speak English and navigate the “L”.
Mishra’s family tends one of the 100 garden slots in this twoblock-long triangular space near Sacramento and Lawrence avenues. Each family pays US$20 (RM85) a year, which helps defray the cost of seeds they receive.
Most grow vegetables to take home and cook with lunch or dinner, but about 12 families sell vegetables at the Horner Park Farmers Market. A portion of the garden also is designated to grow vegetables for the farm’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) programme, which costs US$375 (RM1,600) for a summer membership with weekly produce. Funds from the CSA help provide the seeds and plants given to the refugees to grow.
On a recent sunny afternoon, the garden was steadily filled with people bundling green onions or watering soil. Children darted around mounds of dirt. Mishra tended her plot, expertly plucking out weeds and selecting a handful of the bitter, spicy greens to take home and include in her family’s dinner.
Most of the refugees come from Myanmar and Bhutan, Seyler said, although some are from Congo, Eritrea and Laos. Working the soil gives them a way to connect to their previous lives.
“They’re in here as soon as there’s a sunny day in January,” she said.
Those first winters can freeze expectations, especially for refugees from warm locations.
At the first frost, some tell Seyler, “it all died”.
Gently, she’ll respond, “That’s what happens here.”
Part of her job is suggesting something like garlic, which they can plant in the fall and harvest in the spring.
Plants growing in the refugees’ gardens are ones Chicagoans might not expect. A man from Bhutan had planted zucchini alongside lamb’s quarters and pokeweed, which Seyler said most consider “wild edibles”.
Another plot supports bitter melon, to Seyler’s surprise. “I always thought of that as a real tropical thing, but it grows nicely here in Chicago.”
Ma Tun Nyint arrived as a refugee from Myanmar six years ago. A year later, she found the garden. While generously watering her plot on a recent sunny afternoon, she pointed out the radishes and cucumbers.
“My country, this long garden,” she said, motioning her hands wider to show the land she farmed in Myanmar. “Chicago, small.” Here at the garden, she said, “I’m happy.”
Seyler said the refugees, despite at times knowing limited English, often use the word “home”. After arriving to a brand-new city with a different climate and foreign language, gardening can seem a universal language.
“There’s a lot of mental health healing involved,” she said. “It’s the food that holds the family.”
Some farmers are older, she said, often grandparents who might otherwise struggle to find things to fill time. “It gives them an active role in their family,” Seyler said.
For Mishra, gardening in this corner of Chicago is a way to feel connected to the homeland she and her husband fled with their two children amid persecution. “We had no option,” she said.
At the garden, the Mishras’ plot is full of the mustard greens alongside garlic, cucumber and tomatoes. They harvested enough last year to share with neighbours, and they froze so many tomatoes they still have some left.
“In Bhutan, we had a large area of land,” she said, estimating about 6ha to 8ha. “Here, we have a small plot, but we can grow so many things.” – Chicago Tribune/ Tribune News Service
Pak Suan of Myanmar works in his small greenhouse in the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm, in the Albany Park neighbourhood of Chicago, Illinois, the United States. About 100 families, including refugees from Bhutan, Myanmar and elsewhere, have plots in the community garden.
Renuka Pokhrel of Bhutan planting seedlings in her family’s garden plot in the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm.