Refugee gardeners harvest familiar produce

Refugee gardeners harvest familiar produce

By Joanna Gardner

Burmese refugees and others pose for a photo in the Camden County Environmental Park in Gloucester Township during a training day organized by Catholic Charities’ refugee services program. For the refugees, gardening is a way of staying connected to the home they left behind, and a significant financial provision for their families now. Photo by Avi Steinhardt

Burmese refugees and others pose for a photo in the Camden County Environmental Park in Gloucester Township during a training day organized by Catholic Charities’ refugee services program. For the refugees, gardening is a way of staying connected to the home they left behind, and a significant financial provision for their families now.
Photo by Avi Steinhardt

Ten Burmese refugees listened intently as master gardeners Rebecca Szkotak and Chris Waldron offered nuggets of gardening wisdom. The Burmese’ community gardens will benefit next spring from the gardeners’ advice on composting, rain water collection and, especially, keeping away those pesky turkeys.

The garden training took place on Oct. 2 at the Camden County Environmental Park in Gloucester Township. Rebecca Szkotak is the Agricultural Program Associate for the Rutgers Master Gardeners program, a volunteer-based training and certification program through the Rutgers Cooperative Extension that “provides educational programs and activities in support of environmentally responsible home gardening.”

Chris Waldron, the county’s Office of Sustainability Director, is a gardener and farmer himself and works with the program. Together Szkotak and Waldron gave the Burmese gardeners a tour of the environmental park, with its greenhouse, composting system, rain water collection barrels, and raised garden beds.

“I think it was meaningful for our gardeners to see a different garden and how things are done in a different place, and also see how they could improve their own gardens and make them better in coming years,” said Caitlyn Jones, a case manager with Catholic Charities’ refugee services program who helped organize the training day.

Catholic Charities’ Immigrant and Refugee services program, which assists over a hundred refugee families each year, began a community garden project last spring, spearheaded by the Burmese refugees that account for more than half of the population the program serves.

The garden project has grown to include more than 15 families who tend three community gardens.

For these families — whose histories contain the trauma of fleeing their native country and the double culture shock of refugee camps in Malaysia before their final move to the United States — gardening is more than a hobby. It’s a way of staying connected to the home they left behind, and a significant financial provision for their families now.

“Different countries have different culture, different food. Now that we have the garden we can plant the vegetables we eat in my country so that I can keep my culture. I like growing the vegetables. When I go there I feel happy and refreshed,” said gardener Khin San Htay.

The garden is also a financial aid to many families, and to Catholic Charities’ refugee services program. Francis A Pau, a case manager with the program and a native himself of Burma, has his own plot in the garden. He says the produce grown this summer meant significant savings for the program, which provides food to refugee families during their first months in the United States.

Last summer, for example, a family of four would have received $500 worth of groceries. This summer, a family of four, by growing all of their own produce in the garden, only required $100 worth of groceries during the same time frame.

The refugee program helps families apply for food stamps and begin looking for work. When they find jobs, they no longer qualify for food stamps. Many families said the savings on produce lifted a financial burden.

“The produce supports my family income. I can save more money. I can share food with my neighbors,” said gardener Kyaw Wah Ni. “When I lived in Burma I was a farmer. Before I came to the United States I was in a refugee camp for seven years and even in the refugee camp I had a garden. I miss my country, I miss my life from before. Whenever I get a chance I go to see the garden.”

The gardeners said they would like to see the gardens continue to expand. With more space they could grow more food and freeze it through the fall and winter, said Khin San Htay.

The community gardens began when Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, coordinator of Catholic Charities’ prison ministry program, sat in on a meeting with the Immigration and Refugee services program and heard director Kaitlyn Muller’s dream of starting a community garden, particularly for the refugees from Burma her program serves.

Sister Lafferty thought of the unused garden plots behind the Mount Ephraim home where she lives with another sister, owned by her order, the Sisters of St. Francis.

Ground was broken on 12 plots in Sister Lafferty’s backyard last April. Word of the initial garden spread and by May there were two more, thanks to Father Joseph Capella, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Shrine in Lindenwold.

His parish serves many Burmese people. In 2009 it began a shuttle system with the Burmese in mind to help transport parishioners to Mass.

He offered a 100 by 200 foot plot behind the parish rectory and another smaller 20 by 50 foot plot on the grounds of the now-closed Our Lady of Grace Parish in Somerdale.

“[The garden] has helped me as the pastor get to know them [the Burmese] in a different way, to be able to go out back and talk with them and meet with them, to see them outside of church on Sundays,” Father Capella said.

Both Father Capella and Sister Lafferty said it was common for families to gather at the gardens on summer evenings, bringing their children while they worked, chatting amongst themselves. They had access to tool sheds and tools, hoses and a supply of water, partially through a grant from Sister Lafferty’s Franciscan order of sisters.

The Burmese used their own resourcefulness, too. Complex crisscrossing trellises built of branches from nearby tress, wood scraps and twine supported a mesh of vines where beans and squash grew. Fences made from whatever they could find surrounded plots to protect them from the wild turkeys and rabbits. Most of the vegetables have names that sound strange to English-speaking ears and cannot be found in grocery stores here.

Throughout the summer, Father Capella frequently found baskets of vegetables left on his doorstep as a thank you.

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