By Laura Stevens
Imagine you’re a farmer: Every morning, you survey your crops, grasp the soil in your hands, feel the warm sun or cool rain on your face. This is how you support your family, and it’s the only life you’ve ever known. Then one day, something so terrible happens in your country — war, persecution, famine — that you’re forced to leave it all behind.
That’s exactly what happened to Buddha, a Bhutanese refugee who now lives in Louisville.
Buddha was born in a small village in the South Asian country of Bhutan, where his parents farmed oranges, rice, cardamom and vegetables to earn a living and feed their family. But their lives and livelihood were uprooted due to ethnic cleansing and unrest in the country, forcing the family to flee to Nepal. After nearly two decades in a Nepalese refugee camp, Buddha, along with his wife and parents, came to the United States and settled in a simple apartment in Louisville’s Iroquois neighborhood.
Everything was an adjustment in this foreign place: learning a new language, new customs — and learning to live in an urban environment without any land on which to farm. But that all changed with the help of Common Earth Gardens, a Catholic Charities of Louisville program that’s dedicated to the empowerment and improved quality of life of refugee families through agricultural opportunities.
This is accomplished through supporting community gardens with multilingual trainings and leadership development, facilitating the Incubator Farm Business Training Program, and connecting growers to land opportunities. These opportunities contribute to improved mental and physical health, community integration, access to healthy food, and increased family income through farm sales.
A survey of growers at the end of the last growing season revealed that 100 percent of participants reported improved health due to access to fresh produce. Since acquiring land to grow their own food, 28% of participants who, prior to having a garden worried about running out of food to feed their family, no longer experience that worry.
In addition to providing refugees with a means of putting fresh food on their tables, Common Earth Gardens helps refugees who wish to earn a living through agriculture. The incubator training farm supports participants to start their own farm business, which can include sales to farmers markets, CSAs, restaurants or supermarkets. That’s the goal the Bakar Family Farm is working toward. Bakar and his family fled war-torn Somalia and, after years in a refugee camp, they ended up in Louisville. Catholic Charities helped the family set up their home, enroll their kids in school, learn the language, find work — and provided a shared plot of land to farm thanks to Common Earth Gardens.
Bakar eventually enrolled in our incubator training farm; his produce can be found at the Beargrass Creek Farmers Market and the Sunday market at St. Francis of Assisi, and soon he hopes to run his own sustainable farming business full time. The farm is a family operation with different family members selling at the markets, working on the farm, and striving towards future plans of expanding the business.
Common Earth Gardens is making a real difference in the lives of refugee families, providing food security and, for some, a means to earn a living. But more than that, it connects refugees to their native roots while establishing a sense of belonging in their new homes. It’s a program that yields not only a bounty to share or to sell, but that enhances wellbeing and positively impacts the community as a whole.
Visit www.cclou.org to learn more about Common Earth Gardens.
Laura Stevens is director of Common Earth Gardens and Common Table, the agriculture and culinary arts training programs of Catholic Charities of Louisville.