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Refugees find food, community in a Tampa garden


Lah Ku spends much of his day working in the gardens off the unpaved roads of Causeway Boulevard just outside St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Ku's 3-year-old granddaughter runs around him and clutches his leg as he tends plants. There are papayas, moringas, chili peppers, lemongrass and other vegetables and leaves native to his home country, Myanmar. He fled the country, formerly known as Burma, nearly three years ago.

The garden is more than earth and plants for Ku, 56, and many of the other refugees who come there to grow food. It's a community.

Through the week, families, mostly Burmese, come and go. They grow crops for sustenance and sale. On the weekends, large families gather, sharing meals and stories, communicating despite the cultural and ethnic differences that separate them.

Pastors Joseph Germain and Berhanu Bekele started the garden 3 1/2 years ago. Germain led a congregation filled with refugees and noticed that many were leaving the state because they couldn't find a livelihood.

He wanted to find a way to help them settle and find community, something often missing in resettled immigrant populations.

"You don't have family here," said Germain, pastor of the Global Refuge Community Church in Temple Terrace. "You don't have community like you have back home. For the most part, these people grew up in small communities where everyone knew everybody."

About 9,000 refugees live in Tampa, said Janet Blair, Community Liaison for the SunCoast Region Refugee Services Program offered through the Department of Children and Families. They come from countries including Burma, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.

Refugees must prove to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that they are unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in social groups. They come to Tampa with legal status and a small set of benefits — cash assistance, Medicaid and food assistance for eight months — provided by DCF.

The goal is to enable refugees to find employment within the first eight months, Blair said. After a year, they become eligible to apply for citizenship.

"We know it's a huge adjustment period," Blair said. "Particularly for Burmese refugees, they're coming from camps — camps without running water or electricity. So they land here in Tampa Bay, and it takes time to integrate."

But even after the first year, Blair said, it's often difficult for refugees to adjust. Many who find employment are at or below the poverty level, seeking jobs in housekeeping, landscaping and other things they can do with little command of the English language.

Nearly four years ago, Pastor Germain attended a meeting of people who work with refugees. He mentioned what he had seen in his congregation. Bekele, pastor of St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Tampa, said he had 6 acres of land.

Most of the people from his congregation came from agricultural backgrounds, Germain said. It was a perfect marriage of resources. The refugees could tend a garden and plant any crops they chose, including plants from their native lands if the soil was right for it. Refugees could do what they wished with the crops, even selling them on the side if they had extra.

Bekele and Germain received $10,000 from the Allegany Franciscan Ministries, enough to buy plants, tools, chickens, sheep and goats. But foxes got to the chickens, and the grant ran out. The pastors had been essentially sustaining the garden on their own.

In December, DCF's Refugee Services Division, which provides language classes and other social service support for refugees within the first few years of their arrival, held a fundraiser for the garden.

Now the group has received almost $85,000 from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, which has stepped up funding of community gardens across the country.

With the grant, Germain said he and Bekele hope to expand the garden and their chicken operation and develop a fish farm. The Office of Refugee Resettlement also plans to bring in 35 refugees to work on the farm, help them learn English and give them the ability to start microbusinesses, selling eggs, fish and other surplus crops.

Essentially, Germain said, they hope the garden will provide a greater sense of community, a place where the refugees can sit and talk or share food.

Bekele, who came as a refugee from Ethiopia in 1985, said he remembers the sense of belonging he received when he came to the United States, and said paying it forward felt right.

"The people were very, very nice," he said. "I never forget the people who lifted me up. I never felt like I was a stranger in a strange country. The reception was so wonderful. You cannot live without community."

To Ku, who recently showed off photos of a successful yield of Chinese cabbage from last spring, the garden is more than community. It's a point of pride.

Soon Ku will move with his wife and granddaughter to live on the land so it has a full-time caretaker.

As his family looked on recently, he touched the soil.

"It's good earth," he said.

Refugees find food, community in a Tampa garden 11/13/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 3:17pm]
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