Clash of Cultures in Community gardens: is there really a need for refugee/immigrant gardens in Fort Wayne?

Readers, this is a guest column by Ellen Ley, a horticulturalist from Ft. Wayne, IN, to further inform us about the refugee “community” gardens we told you about here a couple of days ago.  I found this an interesting report from someone with firsthand experience with one city’s gardening projects.

Grassroots community gardeners are wrapping up the community garden season this October, picking the last of several gallons of peppers, cow peas, green beans, tomatoes,okra etc. We wandered around one of the larger community gardens that had been plotted out for various groups, such as several plots for the Africans, plots for the African American, Mexican, South American communities, just checking to see what has been picked and such. We have made several observations about the need for community gardens. After working in at least 3 large community gardens over the years, to plant, maintain, harvest, I have observed that the work is too hard for the majority of people if they are too young, too old, too weak, too infirm, too busy, or just too lazy. We have made exceptions for the elderly, too young, and the sick, but when it comes to able bodied, there should be no exceptions, including in the refugee populations where the need for sustainable community gardens is the greatest, it would seem.

The city, and the parks department has had it’s own community garden agenda for years, and has had sites to garden, available for a minimal fee to the general public along the St. Marys river, and other locations. The program ‘Food for the Fort’  focuses on the cities most needy, and even more on the refugee crisis. The city has created an exclusive refugee garden. This is a garden next to the Burmese Advocacy Center down on ‘main street’. This garden ….fully funded, raised beds, mulched paths, privacy fence, gazebo, built in irrigation system, market tent, on approx. 1/2 acre lot located downtown ‘Main street’ is well tended by city employees, and a few Burmese.

Whereas a non-funded, not a non-profit Fort Wayne Urban Farming/gardening Project located a refugee/Burmese community garden in 2009 on a approx. 25+ acre vacant city lot miles away from downtown ‘main street’, in a neglected area of the city within the largest Burmese resettlement apartment community in the nation. It was well tended by homegrown volunteers. Go figure.

I was a manager of this large refugee garden, intended not just for the refugees, but for all citizens in the vicinity. One large 50×50 square foot plot was planted in June, and the plan was for a large number of plots for many refugee families. This was only after the city gave permission to use the city lot after dragging its feet, and only after I got signatures from homeowners neighboring this large Burmese garden to agree to it. The reaction from the neighbors was in the majority negative, they did not want a Burmese refugee garden located there, they did not want the Burmese refugees living next to them, period.

The garden was planted anyway, and that is where the frustration began with the refugees. We communicated with the apartment community managers about the need for refugee gardens next to their particular complexes, they were supportive, and did try to make an effort to communicate to their refugee clients about available garden space. We communicated with some tribal leaders at the refugee complexes, they were questioning, asking if there was a need for refugees to garden….say what???….. The Burmese advocacy center was inquisitive about a refugee garden planted at that site by a group not affiliated with the city.

The refugees observed us preparing, planting this particular garden as they walked/biked daily on a path cutting through the large vacant lot connecting 2 large refugee apartment communities, only their children would stop and lend a hand for several minutes moving rocks, or doing a little bit of planting, tilling, weeding. The refugee adults would not lend a hand, would not come to the garden when asked to be there at 9 on weekday mornings, and would not be seen for the rest of the gardening season, except for a few scurrying across the lot The African Americans that I encountered in the area, and offered garden space to, refused to garden at this site because of the Burmese. We planted 62 Sour Leaf plants for the Burmese, tomatoes, hot peppers, squash, onions. Even though they refused to work in the garden, they apparently did glean from it, and I am sure others in the area did too. This particular garden was not planted again in 2010. Several of the Burmese/ refugees were seen planting small gardens in the green space back of their apartments this year, we assume this is what they prefer instead.

Another 2 acre community garden that has been in existence for 8 years, Garden Angels Community Garden(non-profit),has been ignored by the city, until now, has not even been mentioned in ‘Food For the Fort’, and has served the African American, Mexican, South American, white communities, also saw a problem with the Burmese/ refugees when they were invited to work in this garden, harvest the produce. Burmese refugee families volunteered in the garden, but when it came time to harvest, they overwhelmed the other volunteers by bringing carloads of extended Burmese families to pick, leaving little left of certain crops for others. This led to disgruntled African American volunteers, and others, to quit this garden unless the Burmese were kicked out. This garden did really well this year, despite the refugees, in spite of the lack of ample volunteers, in spite of the extreme heat, drought that occurred, in spite of shortage of funds.

The Burmese/refugees did not volunteer at the Garden Angels site, except for a chosen few which leads us to another community garden site. Fellowship Church community garden. This site was turned over to the manager of the Garden Angels site this year after being somewhat of a failure last year for Fellowship. Fellowship Church had tried the Burmese/refugee garden thing, and ran into problems also. Burmese/refugees were not happy to work in this large , 7 plus acre garden site, and complained about the lack of water, about the soil, about the small size of their preferred produce when grown there. This year 2 1/2 acres of this site was planted by The African American community, African refugees/immigrants, white community, but no Burmese/refugees. I worked hard in this garden along with the manager, a few other volunteers, where again we lacked enough ample volunteers, funds, but it has been deemed a success.

Back to my observations of these 3 community gardens. I have observed the lack of volunteers, lack of funds, lack of interest by the refugee community. The refugees will, and do harvest select plants growing in the garden sites not planted as a crop, considered as ‘weeds’ by most, Purslane, Amaranth(pig weed) to name a few.These plants should definitely be grown as crops, if just for the refugees, it is what they prefer as a food source. As we harvest the rest of the produce this month I have observed African refugee/immigrant garden plots, and the lack of attention to their crops. They are not harvesting, other than again, the plants considered ‘weeds’, they are letting tomatoes, squash, cantaloupe rot on the vine, corn to go to seed on the stalks. This group of refugees/immigrants has been told to harvest the fruits of our/their labor, to no avail.

This begs me to ask the questions, are the refugees/immigrants receiving enough governmental handouts in money/food that they don’t really need the community gardens? Why are city officials starting up a new program, ‘Fort Wayne Urban Gardening Project’,with an agenda to gain control over existing community gardens, and/or create new community gardens to involve refugees with one of the pretexts that the refugees/immigrants need these gardens, if not for food, then for income? And who do they think is going to do all of the intensive, backbreaking work to sustain these gardens if the majority of refugee/immigrants, and others refuse to do so?

Good questions!

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