On the East side of St. Paul, vegetables and communities are flourishing at two new community gardens started by refugee families and volunteers from the Minnesota Council of Churches. The “Neighbor Garden”, located at the Birmingham Woods apartments, is gardened by residents from Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Burma and the US. The nearly Flandrau Garden is open to all neighborhood residents, and is gardened by Ethiopian, Eritrean, Iraqi, Nepalese, and Karen refugee families, as well as several Hmong-American neighbors.
Community gardens are a great way for refugee families to get to know their neighbors and begin to feel safe in their new homes. “I like the garden because it helped me get to know my neighbors”, says Law Paw, a Karen gardener. “There are many Karen people living here, but we all came from different refugee camps in Thailand so we didn’t know each other. Now we work in the garden and talk about where we are from”. Like Law Paw, many of the refugee families farmed or gardened in their home countries. In Minnesota, community gardens provide a space for families to grow foods from home, as well as an opportunity to teach food and gardening traditions to their children. Gardening also helps reduce household food budgets and improves access to fresh produce. The gardens also give American community members an opportunity to get to know their new neighbors and learn about vegetables and gardening styles from many different countries.
Community leadership has also flourished in the gardens. The volunteer organizers called the initial meetings and helped gather gardening supplies and resources, but the gardeners are running the gardens. Gardeners also help each other with garden work and maintenance. At the groundbreaking, everyone pitched in to dig up grass from the plots – regardless of whether they knew each other or could speak the same language. At the Flandrau Garden, two Iraqi men came out just to help dig, because they weren’t sure if their families would have time to maintain a garden plot. After clearing several plots, they were so excited about the garden that they dug up plots for their families, and have been busy gardening ever since!
These two gardens would not have happened without a great deal of collaboration and cooperation. The Minnesota Council of Churches spearheaded the project and connected the organizers with refugee families and caseworkers to help with translation. The International Institute spread the word to refugee families at the Flandrau Apartments. The District 2 Community Council provided land for the Flandrau Garden, facilitated the water hook-up and insurance, and spread the word among neighbors. The Birmingham Woods management also provided land and water for the Neighbor Garden. The gardens received great volunteer help and donations from Redeemer Lutheran Church, The Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, Taking Root (an interfaith refugee sponsorship program sponsored by the MCC), the Southwest Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, and World Relief Minnesota. Pizza Luce held a community fundraiser for the project, and Gardening Matters helped with connections and information about how to start a successful community garden.
By working together, refugee families, local organizations, and community members are making our communities stronger, more connected, and more beautiful.