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Refugees Grow Chilis And Community

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Louisa Jonas
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Texas Public Radio
Refugees find community through garden progam.

  In the past decade the non-profit Green Spaces Alliance has created at least 40 community gardens in San Antonio.  

Some have been developed to feed residents in low-income neighborhoods who have no access to grocery stores.  Others have transformed blighted areas into rich, green plots of productivity.  Three were planted for refugees.  At the refugee garden at the St. Frances Episcopal Church near Shavano Park, the gardeners harvest more than food for the table.

The plots at the International Community Garden are packed tightly together. The plants are tall and thick and walking in between the plots feels like you’re wandering through a labyrinth. 

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Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Green beans grow in the refugee's community garden.

The garden was built several years ago by a consortium of churches for refugees who live in the neighborhood. But the refugees, who are from Bhutan and Myanmar, are not here today to work their plots because it’s too windy and cold. They’ve come here this morning to show off the garden.

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Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Pampha Khanal from Bhutan.

  Pampha Khanal from Bhutan says she cooks from what she harvests from her family’s plot. Beans go well with the vegetables.

“I eat beans and chili and radish, potato, tomato,” she says.

There are 58 plots here and each is 10-feet by 10-feet. The produce harvested is shared by each family, sometimes up to eight people.

Ram sing Biswa, like a lot of the Bhutanese immigrants here, spent 15-20 years in Nepal as a refugee before coming to the United States.

“And in Nepal I have a big plot and big garden that we’re working. Here we have a small garden, but it’s enough for us, for festival, everything, including the season. It help us to go for the grocery. It has fresh and vitamin for us,” he says.

A small garden may be enough for Biswa because the refugees come here for other reasons aside from just tilling the dirt.

“People from many country, we have here. Community to work here. We have each other. We sit, we chat,” Khanal says.

The garden is only open for work certain days of the week, but a lot of the refugees come every day just for that sense of community. They’ve built their own serenity garden with tables, benches and flowers in the shade, where they can talk and look over their plots of produce.

“ One thing that’s not very well known is that this group and the group of Myanmar refugees had about three suicides during their first couple years here,” says Bob Hooper, the coordinator for the international garden.

He says it can be especially hard for older refugees who don’t speak the language, don’t understand the culture, and can’t find a job.

“So this garden really grew out of the awareness that we had people that were depressed, sitting in their apartment, looking at four walls, not understanding how a microwave worked, what a refrigerator was all about. So we started this as a way to give them a place to go and get out of the apartments, and it’s done exactly that,” Hooper  says. “I like to refer to it as the country store of the neighborhood. It’s a place for them to gather.”

And for the Bhutanese and Myanmar, putting their hands in the dirt reminds them of home. Januka Biswa, Ram sing Biswa’s wife, speaks for her friends. 

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Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Januka Biswa and Ram sing Biswa

“I like garden. I like garden more. Because I have a lot of garden in Nepal. We work in garden. We like garden,” she says.

Their plots may be small compared to Nepal, but that doesn’t stop them from appreciating who provided them the garden in the first place.

“They’re very generous with their food. If we’re here when they’re harvesting, they will gather a bag and they will come and insist that we take some with us,” Hooper says.

And, an added benefit, he says? He’s learned a lot about gardening from the refugees. He considers them the experts.