Grown from an idea cultivated by University of Michigan student Phimmasone Kym Owens, a collaboration between Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County (JFS) and Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum (MBGNA) has given rise to an area that has been dubbed by its users as “The Freedom Garden” – a space where refugee clients can grow their own food through community gardening.
This refugee-centered garden sits on just over a half acre at Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. With the help of Campus Farm Program Manager Jeremy Moghtader, the garden’s founding members managed the previously unused, grass-covered space turning it into a fertile, productive plot. Summer 2022 was the first year that the group was able to grow produce, and the harvest was impressive, including a wide variety of vegetables and flowers chosen by our newest community members.
The inspiration for this refugee garden came from Owens’s own experiences as a refugee, where her experiences of seeking but not finding comfort through food impressed upon her the importance of this for other refugees. She explains: “On January 1981, I arrived in Chicago as a refugee from Laos and escaped Communist rule and The Secret War aftermath. We lived in several Thai refugee camps for about a year. My family arrived with nothing but a few items and the clothes on our backs. We came from a jungle climate and to arrive in the dead of winter in Chicago was a rude awakening. Foreign was the weather, land, people, culture, and food. We longed for comfort and a reminder of home but did not find that in our food. I was lactose intolerant and the US pushed dairy milk products which made me sick. Our neighborhood grocery stores lacked our kind of food and the ethnic stores were far away and mobility was a challenge with transportation and funds. These are some of the same issues current refugees face.” Considering her history as a refugee and passion for gardening, Owens envisioned an autonomous, client-driven garden space where its users could maintain culture and language, share generational knowledge and provide comfort through community and food.
Days before this photo was taken, Phimmasone Kym Owens and her family escaped Laos in the middle of the night on a makeshift boat made from one single tire.
With the idea of a community refugee garden formed, Owens reached out to Jewish Family Services in the Spring of 2021 and pitched her idea. They were quickly onboard and immediately began searching for funding through grants. An initial roadblock turned serendipitous – one of the grants required the group to first have land, leading Owens to connect with both Moghtader and MBGNA Director, Tony Kolenic. Soon after, MBGNA and JFS formed a partnership that resulted in the formal creation of this refugee-centered garden. Tony Kolenic, MBGNA Director, explains the importance of this community-centered collaboration: “MBGNA is uniquely positioned to honor our new community members’ personhood through connection to the land and the natural world – to help make this community their community.”
Further excitement for this initiative was shared by JFS Board Member, Susan Fisher:
“ It was a delight to visit the garden and learn of the various ways JFS clients express their ethnicity in what and how they plant and nurture. I loved learning that the garden provides not only food but a social environment for individuals from diverse backgrounds – a respite from the work of gardening to visit with friends, sip some tea, and be surrounded by gleeful children enjoying the toys and games readily available. The garden is clearly an oasis for individuals who have endured so much on their path to coming to the United States and eventually becoming US citizens. As a Board member of JFS I am thrilled to see what was once a concept become a most vibrant reality.”
As MBGNA and JFS pursue continued growth and impact, the garden’s short-term future is secure; led by JFS, the partnership has been awarded a 3-year grant from the US Department of Health and Human Sesrvices’ Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program. JFS and MBGNA will partner to provide education and community gardening opportunities and will offer participants support towards starting their own farms.