Find­ing com­fort and pur­pose

Gar­den­ing brings a taste of home to refugee fam­i­lies in Chicago.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By ALISON BOWEN

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

— Pho­tos: TNS

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.

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