Community Gardens: Growing more than veggies

Community Gardens: Growing more than veggies
Growing Together
Volunteers and New Americans join together to work in the garden. Photo courtesy of Growing Together Facebook page.

It’s early February, the ground is covered in sticky-wet snow and the streets are sloppy from a week of 40-degree temperatures. This weather is unseasonably warm for the majority of the Fargo-Moorhead population. But for New Americans Zainab Alsudani and Alyaa Luaibi, Fargo is still chilly and they long for the ground to thaw and the sun to come out of hiding so they can eat freshly gardened produce like tomatoes and zucchini.

Once spring hits, and planting season begins, the Growing Together Community Garden will open so New Americans like Alsudani and Luaibi, who are both from Iraq, can have a place to get fresh vegetables that they helped grow.

Luaibi said she enjoys taking her kids to the community gardens because they get to help and it gives them something to do. She also likes the “organic and good” food she receives from gardening such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini.

The Growing Together Gardens were created in 2006 in part by Nola Storm and Jack Wood as a mission of their local church, Olivet Lutheran of Fargo. Storm had experience working with refugees by sponsoring refugees through church, working as a school social worker with Fargo Public Schools, and as an ELL instructor at Agassiz Adult Learning Center.

The idea of the garden began when Storm got in contact with Wood and decided they needed to do something for the refugee families who they felt were so disconnected from the rest of the community. Their first instinct was to garden because Wood is a “tomato genius,” according to Storm.

“Our first mission is always to build a sense of community,” Storm said. “The food is just a fabulous byproduct.”

More than fresh produce

What started as one 6-by-6-foot plot at Community Homes (a subsidized apartment complex in South Fargo that houses many New Americans) with only five families, the Growing Together franchise has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. Now more than 120 families are with the Growing Together program with their hands in five gardens around the area.

The plots provide easy access to New Americans all across Fargo with locations at Community Homes, Lutheran Social Services, Rabanus Park, and another in south Fargo due to a partnership with Catalyst Medical Center, according to Storm.

The gardens provide an opportunity for refugees from many different countries and native community members to work together toward a common goal. Storm said with a chuckle that the interactions over the years have been interesting. Cultural and language differences are two of the reasons interactions at the gardens can be difficult.

“It’s hard to be from another language and figure out how to forge new relationships,” Storm said.

Storm told a story about a man from Liberia who wasn’t able to learn people’s names very well. When asked why, he said of native community members, “you guys all look alike.”

In order to help break these language barriers, the Growing Together organizers split the volunteers and New American families up in to teams, so that they get a chance to interact with each other while keeping busy doing garden work. Even though they don’t speak the same language, being able to plant tomatoes as a team brings them together as neighbors, Storm said.

Despite those language barriers, Luaibi and Alsudani have been able to get more than just fresh produce from Growing Together.

“Yes, for me it’s helped meet different people,” Luaibi said. “I feel good. The gardens have helped me and my friend Zainab.”

At the gardens they have met other people from Iraq, Bhutan, Liberia, and even quite a few Americans.

Luaibi and Alsudani came to the U.S from Iraq in November 2013 with their husbands and children. They both said winter is still hard for them, and going to the gardens in the summer is a great opportunity. They started going to the community gardens in June of last year every Tuesday after they finished their classes at the Adult Learning Center.

Most of the refugees face the same adjustment problems. Storm described that often times their neighbors don’t talk to them, and when it is as cold as it is in the winter, many New Americans choose to stay in the warmth of their apartment.

“The garden gives New American families a sense of belonging, a place to go that means something, a way to practice what they know and English, and use their skills,” she said.

Storm tells a story about the big difference the gardens can make in the lives of New Americans. Several years ago, before the Growing Together garden was established at Community Homes, a Bhutanese family moved into an apartment there. The son told Storm that his father, who had been a farmer in his native country, saw a small lot behind the apartments and said: “Get me an ox. See that land?  I can get a farm.” The father became depressed when he found out he couldn’t do what he loved. But later, his family had gone to Wood’s house to help seed his garden. Storm said the Bhutanese man got a smile on his face, and said “I’m finally happy” because he was able to use his farming skills. That’s what growing together is about, Storm said.

Growing Together 2
Volunteers and New Americans collecting and sorting vegetables. Photo courtesy of Growing Together Facebook page.

Hard work, big rewards

The gardens take a lot of work. All of the organizers go to each garden once a week to check on the crops. They also meet year round with their members to keep the involvement going. Recently, they even had a holiday party.

Because the summer is short and the program is so large, all the work for the week on one garden must be done in a day. Volunteers and New Americans come to the garden to weed, water, seed and other important work.  

When the gardens first started, volunteers and New Americans would do the work, and then serve a huge meal to all those who helped. Now that the members of the gardens are as plentiful as their tomatoes, they have PBJ’s and salads. Sometimes, New American families will even bring traditional dishes to share.

As far as distributing the harvests go, Growing Together has had to adjust their system for the numbers. Storm said after all the veggies are picked distribution lines are created for the produce to be collected by each family, who receives a bag and container for their share. The amount of produce each family receives depends on the amount of hours they put in to the garden work, to make it fair across the board.  

Sometimes, even the simplest of activities like collecting the vegetables they helped plant can bring back hurtful memories from the refugee camps. Storm said when they first started using the distribution lines it made some of the New Americans anxious due to memories of having to collect rations in the camps. Storm, Wood, and the rest of the Growing Together Team had to adjust to these reactions, and most of the refugees understood that everyone is getting their share of the plot.

Many New Americans hear about the garden through word of mouth via a neighbor, a friend, or another community organization. Luaibi and Alsudani were told about the gardens by one of their teachers at the Adult Learning Center. No matter how the New Americans learn about the gardens, they come to them looking for more community.

With a deep breath and tears forming in her eyes, Storm describes her favorite part of working with New Americans at Growing Together “They have so much resilience,” she said. “It has strengthened my faith that the human spirit can rise above the terrible things and be grateful for the little things.

“Refugees love this country and are so thankful to be here – they want to meet their neighbors – they want the same things we do,” she said. “I am so grateful, and amazed of these people every day.”

Below are addresses for each of the four main Growing Together Community Gardens:

COMMUNITY HOMES (GROWING TOGETHER)

Address: 702 23rd St. S., Fargo

GATHERING (GROWING TOGETHER)

Address: 3910 25th St. S., Fargo

LSS GARDEN (GROWING TOGETHER)

Address: 3911 20th Ave. S., Fargo

RABANUS PARK GARDEN

Address: 4415 18th Ave. S., Fargo

 

This piece was written by Concordia College student Paige Olson as part of an Investigating and Narrating the News course taught by Catherine McMullen during the Spring of 2016. To learn more about this project and read additional stories, visit their website at http://newamericanfm.wix.com/read

Community partnership helps refugees adjust and succeed

Community partnership helps refugees adjust and succeed

This is one in a series of articles written by eleven Concordia College students during a semester-long advanced reporting class taught by Catherine McMullen at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. These pieces explore refugee resettlement in the Fargo-Moorhead area. As an introduction to this project, McMullen states that these articles “…do not attempt to provide the definitive study on the topic, but rather explore various aspects of refugee resettlement through the stories of people who know the topic on a first-hand and deeply personal basis.” Read more here.

Every refugee who resettles in Fargo-Moorhead makes the same first stop on their journey to become a part of the community:  Lutheran Social Services. But that’s not where it ends. There are many stops New Americans can make to receive support so that assimilating to life in Fargo-Moorhead is a bit easier.

Lutheran Social Services helps approximately 400 refugees resettle in North Dakota each year. After all the paperwork is signed at LSS, refugees need assistance from the community too, which they receive from numerous community partnerships and nonprofits around Fargo-Moorhead. Several organizations, volunteers, and community members provide those extra steps to New Americans after LSS has done their work. Often times, they even partner together. The LSS website reports that in 2015, 113 volunteers donated over 10,000 hours of service to assist LSS in resettlement work.

“The volunteer agencies who were responsible for the resettlement work discovered early on that in order to be most effective with resettlement there had to be community support for integrating individuals who were resettled into the community,” said Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president for senior and humanitarian services at LSS.

Dykshoorn was also the State Refugee Coordinator in North Dakota in the 1980’s. These volunteer agencies, including LSS, have since been dedicated to finding New Americans support for learning English, gaining employment, and finding housing.

Fargo-Moorhead is home to New Americans from several different countries such as Bhutan, Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Iraq. Dykshoorn said that most of the time when a refugee comes to the country the only possessions that they have are the clothes on their backs and a bag of medical records and paperwork for LSS. Everything else has to be provided by LSS or the community so that the New Americans can become self-sufficient individuals.

LSS provides refugees with the basics like housing, coats, groceries, job placement, and education right away, but it takes much more than that. “What refugees need most is to feel welcome and feel a source of support,” Dykshoorn said. “Money is not enough.”

Changes in the process

Darci Asche, Director of Development at the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment Center (WE Center) has assisted refugees for most of her life and noticed how the refugee resettlement processes in the community has changed over the years.

“Back then (1980’s) refugees couldn’t come to the US without a church sponsor,” Asche said.

Asche grew up in small town in North Dakota where the local Catholic Church started assisting refugees after the Vietnam War. Her family hosted one of the New American families and Asche began helping them with English. She then joined the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to help refugees. After that, Asche was led to LSS where she began to volunteer. Later she received a full time position and for 20 years was head of refugee resettlement and foster care. She later joined the WE Center to be a part of the resources available to refugees after LSS.

Several nonprofits in town are dedicated to the growth and development of the New American population in a variety of ways, such as the New American Consortium of Wellness and Empowerment, CHARISM (Community of Homes And Resources in Service to Many), and Growing Together Community Gardens. Each one provides New Americans with their secondary steps in being a part of the community.

“LSS helps New Americans with registration and government help and paperwork, (and) we offer resources like life skills and building relationships in the community,” said Andrea Jang, community outreach coordinator for CHARISM.

Even though the agencies have different roles, all have similar elements. They provide New Americans with a chance to have more education, build relationships, and receive necessities to live a full life in the community.

The WE Center: A place for nurturing

The New American Consortium of Wellness and Empowerment, or WE Center, is one of the newest organizations, which started because of “mutual and unique needs of the Bhutanese, Somali, and African populations,” Asche said.

The WE Center is actually a partnership between five refugee community organizations: the African Initiative for Progress, the Somali Community Development Center of North Dakota, the Bhutanese Community in Fargo, the Global Youth United, and the Giving + Learning Foundation.*

“We provide a place for them in their own ethnic groups outside their apartments while also giving them a chance to connect with more communities,” Asche said.

The Consortium is built upon two pillars. The first is wellness—physical, spiritual, and emotional. Physical wellness is reached through health education, youth soccer programs, a partnership with Growing Together Gardens, and mental and physical healing through yoga classes. Spiritual wellness at the WE Center means art classes and cultural conversations. Emotional wellness refers refugees to different health services.

Women helping each other to study for the citizenship tests at the WE center. Photo by Paige Olson.
Women helping each other study for the citizenship tests at the WE Center.

The second pillar is all about empowerment through education, socialization, and occupation assistance. Educational and social empowerment opportunities include ELL classes and language exchanges where New Americans can teach other members from different cultures in their native tongue. They also provide afterschool programs, summer mentoring assistance, citizenship classes, and immigration services. Occupational empowerment is provided through job skill development like resume building, mock interviews, and employment referrals.

“We started plugging ideas for what the WE Center would be and what their (refugees) needs were,” Asche said, “Leadership and development was needed to connect with greater community of refugees needs.”

CHARISM: Building community and relationships

CHARISM was created 22 years ago by local churches and the Community Homes subsidized housing complex in South Fargo. Their first goal was to provide programming for low-income families in the neighborhood. Once refugees started moving into the area, the needs of the community shifted. That’s when CHARISM began offering services primarily to New Americans and their families. Today, their overall mission is building connections with the neighborhood.

“We’re really relationship based, like a big family,” Jang said. “I started out volunteering three hours a week with the grocery assistance program, became addicted to helping families, so quit my full time job at NDSU and started working here.”

CHARISM’s programs for New Americans serve people from over 23 countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, and several African countries, Jang said. They have afterschool programs for youth, tutoring and citizenship classes, STEM and English programs, grocery assistance, and a gardening program which Growing Together helped get started.

Each class has around 20 students who learn more than just English. Jang said the classes teach girls and boys about their different strengths.

CHARISM holds many opportunities for New Americans. Submitted.
CHARISM hosts an event for New Americans. Photo courtesy of CHARISM’s Facebook page.

Partnerships with the other community programs for New Americans are also important to CHARISM. Carl Ben Eielson and Discovery Middle Schools, the YWCA, Fargo Park District, Fargo Police Department, Community Homes, and Great Plains Food Bank are all connected with CHARISM’s work with refugees.

“We wouldn’t be able to function without them,” Jang said.

Great Plains Food Bank delivers all of the nonperishable items to CHARISM to assist with their grocery program. According to their website, each Tuesday and Friday residents in need from the neighborhood can go to CHARISM and receive the donated food.

CHARISM offers several volunteer opportunities. Paid positions are available for mentors and tutors, and they always need people to help out with the grocery program Jang said.

Giving goes both ways

More assistance for New Americans include the people and places such as the Fargo Rotarians, Agassiz Adult Learning Center and Carl Ben Eielson schools, Olivet Lutheran and Bethel Evangelical Free churches.

Asche identified the two major challenges for New Americans to be learning English and transportation. That’s why so much of the help from the community includes opportunities to gain better speaking, reading, and writing skills as well as transportation services.

According to the LSS website, The Rotarians donate computers, language software, and time to teach English to New Americans. Carl Ben, Discovery, and Agassiz are a few of many schools that have ELL classes for New American students.

Programs like Project Boaz assist in the transportation need. Olivet Lutheran Church and Bethel Evangelical Free Church team up every summer with their community and congregations to work together by collecting and restoring bicycles for New Americans.

“This is such a wonderful and tangible way that the community gives back,” Dykshoorn said.

Olivet Lutheran is also part of creating the Growing Together Community Gardens. The gardens offer New Americans a chance to work on one six community gardens where they get a chance to meet other refugees and native Fargo-Moorhead people and gain fresh veggies that they helped plant.

There are endless stops New Americans can make in this community to receive the skills and necessities to succeed, but there is just one other thing they need to become successful.

“We need everyone to have an open mind and treat them just as we would any other neighbor,” Jang said “People need to realize that they are so hardworking and really want to succeed here.”

This piece was written by Concordia College student Paige Olson as part of an Investigating and Narrating the News course during the Spring of 2016 where all students reported on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead. To learn more about this project and read additional stories, visit their website at http://newamericanfm.wix.com/read

*Editor’s Note: The WE Center’s member organizations are currently African Initiative for Progress, the Djibouti Community, Global Youth United, and Giving + Learning.