Story written by Lily O’Neill.
COLUMBIA — Just as the sun set and peeked through mature trees, a group of refugees and international citizens gathered in a place where they felt they belonged.
A Chinese woman carried her granddaughter through the rows of cabbage, beans and herbs native to foreign lands. Nearby, Lee Rea sprayed water on crops from Myanmar, his homeland.
A 16-year-old girl from Thailand explained why the community garden tucked behind Columbia’s Broadway Christian Church is so important to her family. They fled their war-torn country two years ago searching for peace and a better life in the U.S.
“The garden reminds my mom of her homeland because she used to work in rice fields,” Bwet Phaw said. “They try their best so (our family) can eat.”
At its inception seven years ago, the community garden served a single purpose: provide a free plot of land for gardeners to grow and bring home food for their families.
It’s grown to be so much more for the 32 refugee families who spend long hours tending to the soil for a fresher and inexpensive alternative to the produce at grocery stores.
They also bond while in the garden, swapping seeds and sharing some of their harvest.
Though they come with different stories, from countries of poverty and military aggression, their struggles are the same.
They clean hotel rooms, work in meat-processing plants and do any odd jobs they can to provide for their families. Here in the garden, they’re able to set food on their tables with their own hands.
“This garden is something for them to call their own,” said Katie Freehling, a job developer and analyst for Refugee and Immigration Services. “They start with something as small as a seed and make it bigger. It is a source of community, a source of pride. They come to America with so little and (the garden) gives them something to call their own.”
Members of Broadway Christian Church started the community garden in 2007. In the early days it served a single refugee family from Bosnia.
Three years ago it expanded when the church began working with Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri’s Refugee and Immigration Services — an organization that helps refugees and immigrants settle in the U.S.
“They can grow crops that they’re used to eating,” Don Day, the garden’s coordinator, said. “Some have expressed that it’s relaxing to them to work in the garden. One refugee in particular had a lot of stress at work and admitted the garden was a stress reducer for him.”
Day also wanted the garden to create interaction between American citizens and the refugees.
Jillian Whitworth, 25, who tills a plot in the garden explained that though the refugee gardeners speak little English, they always try to be helpful and giving.
One gardener brought her a plant, and still she’s unsure what it will produce.
“I think he saw what condition my garden was in and felt bad for me,” Whitworth said, laughing.
Another international citizen helped her out when she wasn’t sure whether what she was pulling was a plant or weed.
“She gestured to me to throw it out,” Whitworth said. “So I knew it was a weed.”
Another time, the woman made an eating motion with her hands and “I knew I shouldn’t pull that.”
Phaw and her mother Ree Meh live about 15 minutes from the community garden and often make sure weeds are pulled and ripe vegetables are taken home. They grow pumpkins, kenaf, cucumbers, chili peppers and more.
“In Thailand you either worked or you got nothing,” Phaw said.
The fresh plot of soil is similar to their new beginnings in America, as their lives grow, so do their plants.
“There is no freedom for us,” Phaw said of her home country. “Burmese soldiers attacked our people. We had nowhere to live. My father says he wants to go back. But me, I want to stay here forever.”