Saturday, January 23, 2010

“In my mind, it’s something that connects me to my childhood”

My first exposure to community organizing was as a volunteer with a group called Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG ) that helped residents in the poorest communities in Boston gain access to resources (including land) to create community gardens. In 1982 "A Handbook of Community Gardening" was published, written by members of BUG. The following quote from Mattapan community gardener Gareth Kincaid opens chapter 1:
"A community garden is like a bumblebee. The laws of aerodynamics say that the way it's built, a bumblebee can't fly. That's why we use the bumblebee as our garden's symbol. Everyone told us we couldn't make a community garden work in the city, but we did!"
Thanks to loyal blog follower and best bud Bruce for turning me on to this wonderful story. (GW)

‘A small United Nations’

Larger community garden nourishes refugees

By Aaron Nicodemus
Telegram & Gazette
January 22, 2010

WORCESTER — In her native Democratic Republic of the Congo, Christine Kindeke and her family always grew their own food.

“In the Congo, most of the income of a family comes from farming,” she said. The knowledge of how to farm, when to plant a particular crop and what methods work best from year to year is passed down from parent to child.

But when she arrived in the United States as a refugee several years ago, that connection to the earth was broken. Living first in New Hampshire and later in Worcester, she had no way to plant the seeds that she had brought with her from Congo. The seeds are from a spinach-like vegetable called biteku-teku in Kikongo, her native tongue.

Last year, she planted those seeds in a small community garden in front of Goddard School of Science and Technology, and harvested a good crop. This year, she has bigger plans.

Through a joint venture of Lutheran Social Services and Silvermine Farm in Sutton, funded with a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, refugees such as Ms. Kindeke who have resettled in Worcester will be able to grow their own crops. The farm has agreed to lease four acres to Lutheran Social Services at $50 per acre, which the agency plans to split up into quarter- and half-acre plots. Quarter-acre plots will go to individual refugees who have shown success in community gardens, while half-acre lots will go to groups of refugees from particular countries, such as Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), Iraq, Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“We’ll have a small United Nations on the ground,” she said.

The organizers hope the project will help provide refugees with a way to make a living.

“We’re hoping that the plots do well enough to have some for themselves, and sell some product to markets and stores,” said Joshua Lohnes, director of refugee employment at Lutheran Social Services.

Martha Cole, owner of Silvermine Farm, said the farm has leased out the four acres in the past, most recently last year to a first-time farmer.

When asked if it would be an inconvenience to have so many people farming those four acres, she laughed.

“I’ve only been farming myself for four years, so I feel like a first-time farmer myself,” she said. “I’m thrilled to have other farmers on the farm. I think they can teach me as much as I could teach them.”

Mr. Lohnes said that in the past, his agency has placed refugees as seasonal farmworkers at local farms, such as Bigelow Nurseries in Northboro. Some refugees have had success selling some of their produce, but the gardens are generally too small to produce enough to live on. The agency, with a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, was able to provide support for 12 community gardens throughout the city. The partnership with Silvermine Farm is a natural extension of the garden project, he said.

“Refugees are so keen on getting land and farming it. It’s what their parents did,” he said. “But the barriers are huge.”

There is, of course, the language barrier, a refugee who can speak English might have trouble finding the right word for “eggplant,” “tractor,” or “plow.” Many refugees come to the U.S. unfamiliar with local growing seasons and unaccustomed to the four to six months of dormancy that is a New England winter.

The largest barrier, though, is access to arable land. The vast majority of refugees being resettled in Central Massachusetts live in urban Worcester. Refugee farming projects so far have been limited to the community gardens scattered throughout the city.

Jenga and Jashu Samal, a husband and wife from Bhutan, grew vegetables last summer in a small plot to the side of the Worcester Public Schools Adult Education Building.

“In our country, we are always eating fresh vegetables,” said Mr. Samal. They grew potatoes, spinach, hot chili peppers, beans, radishes, broccoli, cucumbers and other vegetables in the community garden, with a harvest that sustained them from June to October. They each have part-time jobs at a Federal Express facility in Northboro, but they want to spend their off-hours working the fields.

“It’s our exercise, it passes the time,” Mr. Samal said. “If there’s no job, we can go to the farm.”

He said that among older Bhutanese, farming is ingrained in their culture. During the 17 years he and his wife spent in a refugee camp, they tended to a small garden and put plants in pots. His grandmother grew figs in the camp, he said.

“The young people, they get jobs, but the older people, they like to farm,” he said.

Ms. Kindeke said her friends and family derive benefits from farming beyond the crops they grow.

“You want to teach the young people about farming. You want them to get the experience — to touch the soil, to touch the things they grow,” she said. “In my mind, it’s something that connects me to my childhood.” Mr. Lohnes said anyone wishing to donate money to the project, or to donate farm implements and equipment, can call him at (774) 242-4339.


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