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:


Address: 702 23rd St. S., Fargo


Address: 3910 25th St. S., Fargo


Address: 3911 20th Ave. S., Fargo


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

Refugees face long, grueling process

Refugees face long, grueling process

In February 2014, Faris Alghanimi left his job in Bagdad, escaping the danger of the Taliban to face a new challenge: The U.S. immigration system.

Alghanimi was born in Iraq and lived in Bagdad most of his life. In 2011 he began to feel he was no longer safe in his country. In May, he applied for refugee status. In order to gain refugee status, a person must meet several criteria laid out by Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

The United States has been accepting refugees since World War II. North Dakota has brought in more refugees per capita than any other state in the nation. The number of refugees brought in has varied year to year.  However, since 2009, of the 19 million refugees in the world, the number admitted into the United States has been very close to 75,000 every year. Over half of these are from Bhutan, according to documents provided by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. The process that refugees go through to get to the United States is many times decades long, extremely dangerous, and rarely successful. Every piece of their past is checked, both by the U.N. and by the U.S. and once they get here, if they get here, they are thrown into another arena where they fight for jobs, respect, and a happy life, rather than for survival.

Refugees must make it through all nine of these major steps in order to begin a new life in the U.S. Graphic courtesy of Lutheran Social Services.


According to Saurav Dahal, a Special Projects Manager at Lutheran Social Services, many refugees who arrive in the United States come with stories filled with blood and anguish. During a presentation he gave on the refugee process, Dahal read this passage told by a 13-year-old refugee:

“I remember running through the streets that were once so shiny and so beautiful, now turning into bloody mess. I saw people on the ground yelling, ‘Please help me’. I watched in horror, praying to God that I’m just dreaming and for him to get me out of this nightmare. But no, the smell of burning buildings and the noise of tanks rushing down the streets and the blood of the wounded soldiers made it too real. That is the worst feeling of all, watching people die and there is nothing you can do about it. From that day and now, nothing will ever be the same.”

Since fleeing death is a requirement to become a refugee, this kind of story is common. “Most refugees you talk to or meet have seen or have had that experience where they have faced violence or had their family members killed or their loved ones killed,” Dahal said.

Alghanimi’s fear of persecution came from the Taliban, who roamed much of the country. “I worked with the U.N., which was in a very secure region, but when I get out [of that region], the terrorists would think I worked with the U.S. Embassy or Iraqi government and they’d start to do something bad to me. That is why I applied to get my refugee status,” Alghanimi said.

Alghanimi worked for the U.N., where he helped give jobs to people in poor communities by starting U.N.-funded projects in those same communities. Later, he worked for a program funded by the U.S. while still in Bagdad working with people displaced by the Iraq conflict.

In most cases, to apply for refugee status a person must already be outside of their home country. This escape is usually very dangerous, and many die trying to get out. “Of course not everybody makes it,” Dahal said.  “We have all heard the story of the Syrian boy found on the shore, a four-year-old, that basically went viral, and we hear of incidents where boats capsize and people die.”

Once reaching a refugee camp outside of their home country, they must register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Once a person gives proof that they are fleeing persecution in their home country to the UNHCR, they will be given refugee status, Dahal said. However, gaining refugee status is nowhere near the end of the journey. Life as a refugee is uncomfortable and full of danger. According to documents from LSS, many refugee camps are under-supplied and over-crowded, have poor security, and have only very basic healthcare and education. People living in the camps are not able to work outside of the camp, and are constantly exposed to disease.

“Refugee camps are not a solution,” Dahal said. “When you see a camp a number of things come to your mind such as law and order, basic supplies, healthcare . . . there is not enough to make a sustainable living for the rest of your life and for your children and grandchildren.”

It took Alghanimi three years between gaining refugee status and getting to come to America. However, those years seemed very long. “You do not feel safe there. I had to change my car every six months to hide [from the Taliban].”

Three years is an incredibly short amount of time to be accepted into a host country. Dahal said that many refugees spend upwards of 20 years in refugee camps waiting to be resettled. “Many Bhutanese refugees we have helped, their children are in their mid-twenties, they have never seen Bhutan. They have never been to Bhutan. The only thing they know is about Nepal, but they are not a Nepali. They are from Bhutan.”

However, refugees from Iraq do not have to go to refugee camps because there is a working government there, Dahal said. In fact, many of the world’s refugees are not in camps. They are in big cities and are referred to as urban refugees. According to the UNHCR website, “Like 3.3 billion other people on Earth, they have been steadily moving to cities and towns, a trend that has accelerated since the 1950s.”

The benefits for urban refugees include opportunities for making money and a greater chance of anonymity, but those advantages come with heavy downsides. Living in cities can make it harder for refugees to make their way to the UNHCR agencies to get help. Also, even though urban refugees and those living in camps have the same rights, the UNHCR website claims “Refugees may not have legal documents that are respected, they may be vulnerable to exploitation, arrest and detention.”


Once a person files for refugee status, they have to go through rounds of interviews with the UNHCR to determine if they actually qualify as refugees, according to the U.N. Stephen Baird, an immigration lawyer in Fargo, explains that most refugees do not pass through this part of the resettlement process and onto the U.S. immigration system. “The failure rate for people going through the U.N. system is extremely high, like 95 percent,” Baird said.

After a refugee passes through the UNCHR, they are put into host countries’ immigration systems. They generally do not go anywhere until a country has processed and accepted their application. Each country a refugee applies to individually processes the refugee and determines his or her eligibility to come to their country. According to Baird, refugees have no real input on where they end up. Once a country finishes their processing, that refugee has to decide whether to go to that country. “They can decline, they don’t have to take [the invitation], but if they do then they are betting on whatever country they prefer to go to will accept them. Most people won’t do that, they just go wherever they can and make a new life wherever they end up,” Baird said.

Once passed into the U.S. immigration system, a refugee has to go through many more layers of investigation, Baird said. This starts with filling out forms that establish identification, which can be a challenge. “Most people do not have forms of I.D., birth certificates, anything to back this up, so what they are filling in on the form is backed by nothing but yes, this really is my name.”

Baird said most refugees come from countries that have been having problems for a long time and there is no way to ever confirm these people’s identities. This can be especially problematic when refugees do not remember their real identity. “People may not know for sure when they were born, or they may not know for sure where they were born, or one or both parents are long gone and they don’t know who they were anymore.”

To be considered by the U.S. service, they must fit the U.S. definition of a refugee, which differs in slight ways to the U.N. definition, Dahal said. For example, being displaced by famine will qualify someone as a refugee by the U.N.; however, the U.S. would label that as economic migration, and therefore anyone displaced by famine is not eligible for resettlement in the U.S.

Just like the U.N. process, the U.S. immigration process for refugees also has a very high rejection rate, Baird said. People will often be turned away if they have had any past legal problems, or were involved in a conflict as a combatant or belligerent. Further, the U.S. accepts a limited number of refugees each year. The Proposed Refugee Admissions Report by the U.S. State Department says the ceiling for the number of refugees admitted will be 85,000 for the 2016 fiscal year. That is up from 70,000 in 2015. So far, according to a report posted by the Refugee Processing Center in the U.S., as of April 1, 2016, 29,055 refugees from around the world have been admitted into the U.S. during the 2016 fiscal year.


According to the official website for the White House, refugees go through the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler coming to the United States. First, refugees must go through several background checks conducted by the FBI, State Department, National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland security. After these, every time new information about an applicant surfaces, such as a previously used name or an old phone number, they have to go through background checks again, according to the site. After this there is a round of interviews with U.S. officials and fingerprints are collected. According to Baird, if at any point, there is doubt about refugees’ security risks they are turned away.

Refugees go through the most intensive screening process compared to any other immigrant to the U.S. Graphics courtesy of

If a refugee makes it past the interviews and security checks, they undergo medical screening and are matched with a sponsor agency, Baird said. The refugees that are accepted are resettled into the U.S. through one of several nonprofit agencies, such as LSS. Where they eventually end up, according to Baird, often depends on whether the refugees already have friends or family in the U.S. and what places have the best economic conditions and infrastructure to handle the influx of people.

However, being rejected from the U.N. or U.S. systems does not have to spell the end for refugees. “These people that get rejected out of the U.S. or U.N. systems, a lot of them do end up refugees in other places,” Baird said.

Being placed in a new home country is a common way for refugees to be resettled, but it is not the only way. Dahal said that there are three ways refugees can be resettled. One is the way we are familiar with in America, where a host country takes in a refugee and that is their new home. A second way is called voluntary repatriation. This is when a refugee decides that they are willing to reintegrate into their home country after what drove them out has calmed. Voluntary repatriation is the least common way for resettlement, Dahal said, because the conflicts that force these people out usually last for decades. The last way resettlement happens, and also the most common, is integration into the host country where the refugee first fled to. For an example of the last resettlement option, turn to Nepal. Nepal has a refugee camp with many Bhutanese refugees, and Nepal is the most popular country for those refugees to resettle in, Dahal said.

The United States is currently the only country that accepts refugees from Iraq, according to Dahal. This means for Alghanimi, being accepted for resettlement by the U.S. was his only hope of living a safe life. Luckily for him, he was accepted.

Alghanimi has been in Fargo now for more than two years. Working with refugees, which was the reason he was targeted by the Taliban in Iraq, is something he continues to do in the U.S. Now he works with LSS as a translator, enjoying the biggest perk of his new job: safety.


This piece was written by Concordia College student Tyler Aldous 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