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Growing Home

August 20th, 2011 - By Therese Madden

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Refugees from Bhutan and Burma tend a community farm in South Philadelphia. They not only grow vegetables of their homeland, but also a sense of community in their new country.


Photos by Jessica Kourkounis

Damber Basdola and her son

In this South Philadelphia community garden there’s a lot of translating going on. “What do you call this? We call that lambs quarter.” Damber Basdola is holding up a green leaf, she learns that in the U.S. this leaf is considered a weed, but to Damber who was born in Bhutan, it’s delicious. They sauté it up like spinach, as her husband explains, “put a little oil, salt, and fry it…”

Surrounded by tomato plants, okra and chile peppers, the couple stands with their young son, and they smile. It’s been 19 years since they’ve been in a garden, but not out of choice. The Basdola’s have been living in a refugee camp in Nepal, before that they were farmers in Bhutan. In the camps they lived in small huts, there were no gardens and very little in the way of food, especially vegetables. Damber’s husband, Dina remembers, “camp is very difficult to live, we did not get green vegetables and we also did not get meat, milk, is very difficult to get we did not have money at that time.”

Dina Basdola looks over the garden

For 19 years they ate only rations, which consisted of mostly white rice and some dal, which is basically like a lentil soup. Dina and his family have only been in the U.S. for 2 months, but his English is pretty good. “You want to see my garden? Yeah, let’s go.” The Growing Home Community Gardens are built on 12 lots and are shared by 70 families, mostly other recent refugees from Bhutan and Burma. It’s a project of the Nationalities Service Center, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants resettle in their new homes. These new homes are in a run down section of South Philly, a neighborhood that was somewhat abandoned in the 70’s and 80’s, leaving behind a large number of vacant lots.

Adam Forbes is the gardening coordinator, this is the first year of the project. “So all these gardens just started in March of this year, before that these were all vacant lots filled with 20 years of trash and weeds. So, since March we cleared them and had really hundreds of Bhutanese and Burmese families out working and creating all these gardens and growing a lot of food that they get to all bring back for their families.”

Garden Coordinator Adam Forbes speaks with a gardener

This garden is also a gathering place. Almost every night families gather around 3 picnic tables, “it’s breaking a sense of isolation, it’s giving them confidence to come out of their homes.” Juliane Ramic is Director of Social Services at the Nationalities Service Center. Some of the Burmese refugees have never even seen a bus before, or electricity, and the whole experience can be overwhelming. For some people, especially the elders who don’t speak any English, it can be very depressing. Ramic says in addition to helping refugees find homes and jobs, it’s important to help them integrate into the community, something the garden does, “and it’s helping them to feel connected to Philadelphia. So, they are feeling like this is there home.”

Some of the Burmese families even brought seeds with them when they fled their country. Adam shares the story of one woman named Kin Kin. “She had some seeds from Burma and then she was in refugee camps in Pilao, actually, and she grew some there in a small garden. When she was getting ready to leave to come to the U.S. everyone in Pilao told her that life is very expensive here, and it would be hard to find vegetables. So, she needed to bring some, so, she brought these seeds with her. When she got here she saw there was no where to grow them,” but Kin Kin’s vegetables are now growing in this garden. 28-year-old Bisnu Kamar was forced to leave Bhutan when she was 8-years-old, but being here brings her back home, “yeah it’s very good! I think it’s, oh my God! Sometimes I see the garden, I remember my country, Bhutan, in our country it’s the same, we plant like this, I feel very excited, it’s good.”

Some produce from the garden

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