How gardens enable refugees and immigrants to put down roots in new communities

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DEARBORN, Mich. — Charlotte Karem Albrecht’s Lebanese American grandparents had a big vegetable garden at their house, but she was not allowed in it.

“We were kids,” Karem Albrecht told the PBS NewsHour. “And they were like, ‘Don’t you play hide and seek,’ and they’re like, ‘Don’t go behind the garage.’ So it was this special place where I’d get a peek at and there were all these milk gallon [jugs] that were cut out in various places.”

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Gardening and community gardens can be ways for immigrant and refugee communities to supplement their pantries by growing their own food, especially culturally appropriate food that is not readily found in grocery stores or farmers’ markets. It also helps people send literal roots down into a new place while maintaining a connection with their homeland, it allows them to share their heritage foods with their children and others, and it gives them a chance to be outdoors and normal for a moment in spite of whatever it was that brought them to this country.

The Arab American National Museum (AANM) has created a new heritage garden on its roof with donated seeds, cuttings, and plants from local Arab American community members around Dearborn, Michigan. These include plants with a connection to the Arab world, but also plants from Michigan that have become meaningful to the Arab American community here.

Two women share conversation at the opening of the Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop Al-Hadiqa heritage garden exhibit which celebrates the importance of gardening with donated seeds, cuttings, plants, and oral histories of the Arab American community in Dearborn, Michigan. June 17, 2023. Photo by Houssam Mchaimech, Arab American National Museum

Two women share conversation at the opening of the Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop Al-Hadiqa heritage garden exhibit which celebrates the importance of gardening with donated seeds, cuttings, plants, and oral histories of the Arab American community in Dearborn, Michigan. June 17, 2023. Photo by Houssam Mchaimech, Arab American National Museum

Some of the plants include red and purple figs, grape vine, olive tree, amaranth, thyme, purslane, red lettuce, cherry tomatoes, flat parsley, green onions, petunias, begonias, dwarf crested iris, strawberries, and jasmine. Plants that attract pollinators are included. For an opening event, organizers created centerpieces reflecting this connection between their homeland in the Arab world and their new home in Michigan with a potted mint plant, accented by a purple wildflower found growing outside of the museum.

Accompanying the plants in the garden are oral histories of those community members about what gardening means to them, collected by the museum’s community historian Shatha Najim, which can be played by scanning a QR code on a plaque with a photo of the person placed next to the plants they contributed. Al-Hadiqa (Arabic for “the garden”) AANM heritage garden highlights the significance of gardening for the Arab American community while also embracing sustainable practices. This garden is part of the museum’s ongoing oral history and arts programs, مثمر / muthmir: Cultivating New Beginnings and Cultivate & Grow Oral Histories project. The garden was designed in partnership with Garden Juju Collective, a collective of international landscape designers who design and create sustainable, regenerating, and healing gardens and conservation projects.

These same plants are also being cultivated and maintained at a sister garden at ACCESS Hope House, a psychosocial rehabilitation program that helps adults with mental illness (re)discover their passions and interests through a non-clinical therapy-through-work program.

”Food is what remains”

Despite not growing up with gardening, Karem Albrecht, who is also an assistant professor of Arab and Muslim American Culture and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, began gardening a few years ago after taking a course on indigenous seed keeping practices. She learned the importance of developing a relationship with particular seeds from Rowen White, an indigenous seed keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne. So Karem Albrecht looked for seeds from the Arab region, especially Lebanese seeds because of her Lebanese heritage, but she found that Syrian seeds were more readily available for purchase because of efforts to preserve heritage seeds threatened by the prolonged Syrian war.

“[Syrian peas are] just the most majestic plant. They’re so easy. [They’re] always going to produce pods,” Karem Albrecht said. “Because it’s an early plant, it’s always got this really great outsized place in the garden because everything else is tiny but these are just going crazy.”

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Karem Albrecht has been growing and saving the seed from Syrian peas for six years now. Every year she gives her excess seeds to friends, and only asks for a photo after the seeds have grown in exchange.

When Karem Albrecht heard about the Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop garden and oral history project, she signed up immediately and encouraged friends to be a part. She donated seeds for her Syrian peas, Aleppo peppers, and Lebanese kousa — a zucchini-like squash, known in English as white bush marrow, with lighter green-gray skin that is often stuffed with rice, meat, and spices, and served in a tomato sauce.

“The squash I definitely grew because of childhood. We would have stuffed squash all the time. And so it was a dish that I wanted to make as well,” Karem Albrecht said.

When Charlotte Karem Albrecht heard about the Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop Al-Hadiqa heritage garden exhibit and oral history project, she donated seeds for her Syrian peas, Aleppo peppers, and Lebanese kousa. “I feel like it slows me down in a good way, like I have to just focus on the physical elements of the soil, my hands, what the seeds need,” she said. June 17, 2023. Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang for the PBS NewsHour

When Charlotte Karem Albrecht heard about the Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop Al-Hadiqa heritage garden exhibit and oral history project, she donated seeds for her Syrian peas, Aleppo peppers, and Lebanese kousa. “I feel like it slows me down in a good way, like I have to just focus on the physical elements of the soil, my hands, what the seeds need,” she said. June 17, 2023. Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang for the PBS NewsHour

Being able to grow one’s own food is important to immigrant and refugee communities for many reasons.

The most obvious reason, Karem Albrecht said, “It’s a relationship to food and dishes — nourishing yourselves, nourishing the community — Being able to grow your own food is being able to sustain your community.”

Although Arab Americans, like many other immigrants, have a long history of adapting dishes to whatever is available in their new surroundings, Karem Albrecht said that there are still some dishes that call for vegetables, like molokhia, known in English as jute mallow or nalta jute (Corchorus olitorius), that do not have an equivalent substitute. “It’s this huge, tall, leafy, leafy vegetable that grows. And it’s a dish that exists in a lot of other cultures. Basically you chop it up really fine. And it’s a little bit of a slimy stew. It’s prepared differently in different countries, but there’s not a substitute for that.”

“It’s the food as connection to culture. In older communities, like in my family where people lost the language, lost a sense of history, lost as much connection to the actual place,” Karem Albrecht said. “Food is what remains.”

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Nurturing the plants in addition to preparing the dishes also heightens one’s relationship to the food as part of a cultural practice, especially for immigrant and refugee communities finding their place in America. “Because we’re on someone else’s land,” Karem Albrecht said. “It is a route to having to confront who has stewarded this land for so long. And how did this land come to be in other people’s hands, or how did it come to be that there’s not as much space to garden or that you have to have a raised bed, not being able to plant in the soil because it’s contaminated.”

For Albrecht, this awareness connects refugees as well as those who have been displaced by capitalism and settler colonialism. Palestinian Americans, for instance, who come from their own settler colonial context, “tend to have the most ready sort of connection to that, are already thinking about that, because their practices and relationships to land, foraging, growing with farming are criminalized by the Israeli government,” Albrecht said.

A new sort of canvas

For the museum, the garden represents a new way of thinking about how to create an exhibit and how to involve the community.

“What we do is we tell stories,” museum director Diana Abouali told the PBS NewsHour. “We’re using this medium of gardens and plants and growth as a sort of canvas through which we can tell stories about the community.”

The Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop Al-Hadiqa heritage garden exhibit celebrates the importance of gardening with donated seeds, cuttings, plants, and oral histories of the Arab American community in Dearborn, Michigan. June 17, 2023. Photo by Houssam Mchaimech, courtesy of Arab American National Museum

The Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop Al-Hadiqa heritage garden exhibit celebrates the importance of gardening with donated seeds, cuttings, plants, and oral histories of the Arab American community in Dearborn, Michigan. June 17, 2023. Photo by Houssam Mchaimech, courtesy of Arab American National Museum

The idea for the community garden came from museum staff member Fatima Al-Rasool during the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she was looking for a nice space at the museum where the staff could be outdoors.

“The rooftop before used to be really ugly,” Al-Rasool told the PBS NewsHour. “We had this massive pergola that was really dangerous because it was torn apart, but it was also really heavy, and it took up a lot of the space. And we always wanted to come outside, but there wasn’t much space for us to come and sit and enjoy ourselves. It was just like a dead space.”

So she and the staff proposed creating a staff vegetable garden on the rooftop, and her supervisor at the time, Kathryn Grabowski-Khairullah, agreed to not only do it, but to make it a community garden. Then they wrote the initial grant proposal for General Motors.

“Once that happened, we quickly realized that we had no idea how to garden or make a garden,” Al-Rasool said. So the museum put out a call for proposals which connected them to Garden Juju Collective.

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The museum then held a community town hall meeting to discuss what the garden might look like. “We saw how excited the community was,” Al-Rasool said. “Seventy people came in, in February, with a week’s notice. In February! It was snowing! And they gave us a lot of feedback. They had so many ideas for us, they had so many propositions for the space.”

That spun off into community members getting involved in creating a living exhibit through their participation in additional online surveys and social media outreach, and then donations of seeds and cuttings and being interviewed for oral histories.

“I keep hearing nuggets of stories,” Al-Rasool said. “Oh, I remember this oral history participant said that too. There’s so many connections.”

A red fig tree (ficus carica), donated to The Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop Al-Hadiqa heritage garden exhibit by a member of the Arab American community in Dearborn, Michigan. June 17, 2023. Photo by Houssam Mchaimech, courtesy of Arab American National Museum

A red fig tree (ficus carica), donated to The Arab American National Museum’s new rooftop Al-Hadiqa heritage garden exhibit by a member of the Arab American community in Dearborn, Michigan. June 17, 2023. Photo by Houssam Mchaimech, courtesy of Arab American National Museum

Garden Juju Collective integrated the themes and ideas from community members into the design of the garden, as well as logistical concerns such as making sure all the pots, furniture, and equipment fit into the museum’s elevator for transport up to the rooftop. After only 24 hours after installation, pollinators like butterflies and ladybugs had already found their way to the flowers on the rooftop.

Now community members volunteer in the garden and help teach the museum staff how to take care of the garden.

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“It harkens back to the early days of the museum where the founders went out into the community and heard their stories and brought back their stories and their treasures, and built the museum and exhibits in the archive,” Abouali said. “And now we’re going back to our roots.”

The garden shows one way in which the Arab American community made a home in America, connected with the land, and connected with their ancestors.

Abouali’s hope is that the garden “becomes a garden that is owned by everybody and just happens to be at the museum.”

Refugee to refugee

Thirty miles away in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Phimmasone Kym Owens remembers coming to America in 1981 as a refugee from Laos after the end of the U.S. Secret War in Laos, that the CIA waged alongside the war in Vietnam. She remembers not being able to find any of the herbs and vegetables that she and her family were used to eating, and not quite understanding how to prepare some of the free food assistance that they received, like cream of wheat.

Now in her 40s and a single mother of three, Owens went back to school and graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree this May. She will soon begin the masters program there in social work.

“One of our class assignments was, how can you be an agent of change looking at yourself right now as you are?” Owens told the PBS NewsHour. “My identity — I was a refugee, and I was a foodie, and I love gardening, and I was on the board for a small community garden group called Project Grow. So I combined all of them and I said, ‘Why don’t I create a garden for refugees?’”

Phimmasone Kym Owens and a group of University of Michigan students and community volunteers help create a healing garden with flowers for reflection and meditation as requested by the refugee clients of Refugee Garden Initiatives, a nonprofit refugee-to-refugee gardening project in collaboration with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County and University of Michigan Matthei Botanical Garden campus farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. June 25, 2022. Photo courtesy of Refugee Garden Initiatives

Phimmasone Kym Owens and a group of University of Michigan students and community volunteers help create a healing garden with flowers for reflection and meditation as requested by the refugee clients of Refugee Garden Initiatives, a nonprofit refugee-to-refugee gardening project in collaboration with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County and University of Michigan Matthei Botanical Garden campus farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. June 25, 2022. Photo courtesy of Refugee Garden Initiatives

In 2021, Owens reached out to Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County which helps resettle refugees and to the University of Michigan Matthei Botanical Garden in Ann Arbor which has a campus farm. They formed a partnership to create an innovative refugee-to-refugee community garden program on a 21,000 square foot plot at the botanical garden and to work with refugees and grow culturally appropriate vegetables for four years beginning in 2022.

“What sold this as being different is giving autonomy to the clients,” Owens said. “They get to decide what they want to grow, how they want to grow it, how they want to do the plots. Do you want individual plots? Do you want a community plot? What did you guys want to name that plot? So we had a vote. They voted [for] Freedom Garden. And that’s a name that says it all. The fact that they chose Freedom Garden says exactly what you know, being a refugee, what you want.”

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With Afghan and Congolese refugees, volunteer master gardeners from the community, translators, transportation providers, university students, and many others, there were many different ways of doing things and many miscommunications — from how to work the topsoil, how to dress for gardening, when to break for tea, the difference between a picnic and a barbecue (firecodes). But many friendships and connections were made in Freedom Garden.

One of the purposes of the garden was to support mental health by giving the clients an opportunity to be in nature. One of the refugee groups put a healing garden full of flowers and focused on wellness on their list of “must haves.” “They were really big on flowers,” Owens said. The other group, however, “couldn’t care less about flowers.”

Owens said one of the refugee women said to her, “’How does a stranger think of us? Thank you for thinking of us.’ She was very moved that somebody outside was thinking of their well-being and to create a project for them to be outdoors.”

Refugee clients from the Democratic Republic of the Congo prepare the soil to start planting for the season at “Freedom Garden” with Refugee Garden Initiatives, a nonprofit refugee-to-refugee gardening project, in collaboration with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County and University of Michigan Matthei Botanical Garden campus farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. June 17, 2022. Photo courtesy of Refugee Garden Initiatives

Refugee clients from the Democratic Republic of the Congo prepare the soil to start planting for the season at “Freedom Garden” with Refugee Garden Initiatives, a nonprofit refugee-to-refugee gardening project, in collaboration with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County and University of Michigan Matthei Botanical Garden campus farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. June 17, 2022. Photo courtesy of Refugee Garden Initiatives

Another time, without a translator, there was a miscommunication about harvesting the vegetables. Owens thought that one of the groups did not understand that the vegetables were for them to take home and eat.

“At that point they were only harvesting greens. They weren’t harvesting the eggplants, the peppers, tomatoes, anything that was coming out. So here’s another example of how I got schooled,” Owens said. “And they said to me that they saw me as their teacher leader and they don’t pick anything unless the leader says to go ahead and pick it. And they pick one day together, a community day where we all come out and harvest together. Everything is done as a community, as a whole and not individual.”

“And I thought, Wow, that’s so beautiful,” Owens said. “Communication is so important. Like, I almost missed out on this richness of information and how beautiful that was.”

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Owens spent a lot of time the first summer of the garden in 2022 watering vegetables. This year, she is putting in a bid for land through the City of Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt Program for a 20-acre parcel of agricultural land to create a holistic refugee garden program that is organic, sustainable, and uses agroecological methods that integrate ecological and social principles to the design, such as using livestock to help with soil health and using practices that honor the land.

“It will be refugee owned and run by me, and I will hire only refugees, primarily the single moms who are often overlooked and have no family or support system,” Owens said. “The site will be assisted by volunteers and professionals who will give their time and expertise. The refugee clients would learn life skills and work skills to prepare them to be more equipped and ready to be on their own.”

Owens also envisions an on-site day care center run by volunteers to help support single moms, an onsite restaurant and kitchen to allow clients to explore entrepreneurship with their ethnic cuisine, a wellness center with volunteer therapists who are also refugees, and a retreat center that can generate additional income. The grounds will be beautiful to create a sense of nature therapy, Owens added.

Connections old and new

The power of immigrant and refugee community and heritage gardens comes not only from the culturally appropriate food grown, but the way that the food and gardens help people make cultural connections to others.

“This is one way in which they can make a home and connect with the land and with their ancestors,” Abouali said. “There’s a universal appreciation of nature and gardening and growth. So I think this is accessible to everyone.”

This is especially important when connecting across generations. As Karem Albrecht gave away seeds at the end of one semester, a student told her that she was going to be growing tomatoes with her grandmother that summer.

“That’s something that’s so great,” Karem Albrecht said. “I wish I’d gone out with my grandma.”

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