Community garden returns Columbia refugees to their agricultural roots

Friday, June 22, 2012 | 6:00 p.m. CDT; updated 9:49 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 23, 2012
The Columbia Refugee Garden at Broadway Christian Church has between 40 and 50 plots for refugees to grow food.

COLUMBIA – Thread-like roots dangled from Ah Mwe’s soil-blackened fingertips as he crouched beside his garden plot Thursday evening. Tiny beads of water scattered from the leaves of his corn plants as his hand darted between the stalks, snatching up a weed.

The early evening sun scorched the flat, grey-green leaves and curly chartreuse plants growing in a corner plot a few yards away. Wiry vines wound their way up a spindly tree branch trellis.

If you go

What: World Refugee Day Celebration international potluck and community garden tour

When: Saturday from 10-2 p.m.

Where: Shopping and live music at Columbia Farmer's Market from 10 a.m. - noon, 1701 W Ash St.

Potluck and garden tour at Broadway Christian Church from 12:30 - 2 p.m., 2601 W Broadway

What to bring: A dish to share by noon with serving utensils and a place card with the dish name and ingredients

Who: Open to the public

Cost: Free

Meanwhile, Mwe began tending to a sparser plot, tossing organic plant food over its skimpy sprouts.

Mwe is a Burmese refugee. His crops make up four of at least 40 garden plots roughly the size of pingpong tables in the Columbia Refugee Garden.

The refugee garden plots are interspersed throughout the Broadway Christian Church's community garden. The garden gives refugees a place to return to their agricultural roots.

"It's a big opportunity to reconnect with what they're good at," said Phil Stroessner, employment developer for Refugee and Immigration Services.

Navigating life in America can be difficult, and many refugees stumble through initially, he said. "But in the garden, they never hesitate." 

One-year-old Sai Seng Want Tai's tiny foot caught on a hose coiled in a trough. Clods of dirt collapsed beneath him as he teetered before regaining his tenuous balance.

Stumble forgotten, he later stood mesmerized as black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace growing among the weeds bowed to the butterflies landing on their petals.

Sai Seng's father, Sai Ma Ha Tai, was a farmer in Burma, also known as Myanmar. The plants in his garden are the same ones he grew in his native country. In fact, they sprouted from seeds he brought with him when he relocated to the United States. 

Tai said his plot in the refugee garden has produce that is too expensive at Hong Kong Market.

Jen Wheeler is board president of City of Refuge, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees and immigrants in Columbia. "I see (the garden) as a place where they can help provide for their families," she said, because refugee families often rely on food stamps. 

Stroessner said Burmese refugees also grow chin baung, an herb called roselle in English, along with staples such as corn and tomatoes.

For the refugees, "the value of growing their own vegetables is one thing, but the sense of accomplishment to do this in a foreign land is even greater," refugee garden volunteer Don Ginsburg said.

Beyond agricultural benefits, the garden provides a meeting place for refugees, many of whom are co-workers or neighbors. Tai pointed to an apartment complex across the street and said that most of the Burmese refugees tending their gardens Thursday evening lived next to him.

"We cannot visit home so our home comes here," he said.

Refugees from Burma, Iraq and several African countries have plots in the garden. Initially, refugees only interacted with others of their own nationality, but within the last year they have become more social, Stroessner said.

Stroessner said interactions between refugee and American gardeners have slowly increased in the garden's three years as more refugees learn English.

"We want them to interact not as refugees and Americans, but as gardeners and gardeners," he said.

Stroessner explained how Eritreans, who lived in a drought-prone climate in Africa, normally planted in troughs to conserve water. In last year's rain-heavy summer, their crops became waterlogged. The Eritreans have since adopted the Burmese technique of planting on top of mounds to help the soil drain.

Gardening in a new country has become a common denominator among the refugees, Ginsburg said. 

When Stroessner started the garden, he hoped the project would allow refugees and their families to grow surplus produce to sell.

"Ideally what I'd like to do is to grow an urban farm in which refugees can create their own little market without removing the importance of the community garden," he said.

He knows of a thriving refugee farm in Kansas City and plans to attend a conference there with some Columbia refugee gardeners next February.

This weekend, the refugees will see an example of commercial gardening at the Columbia Farmers Market. They'll receive $10 in vouchers to make purchases, and a musical group made up of refugees will play traditional African music.

A potluck and garden tour open to the public will be held from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Saturday in the north parking lot of Broadway Christian Church, 2601 W. Broadway.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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Chris Cady July 6, 2012 | 4:36 p.m.

An inspiration and one of the many things that makes Columbia great.

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