I grew up in a rural part of the country where we were all pretty much the same and where nothing ever happened. Really, nothing. But I always knew that I wanted to participate in the global world in some way or another. And I found that opportunity not in a certain location, but within a certain group of people: refugees.
Right now, I’m the director of Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Common Earth Gardens program which makes land available to people who have resettled here as refugees and want to continue their centuries-old heritage of farming. Most of them move into apartments or small homes with little to no land access, and we try to remedy that.
Before working with Common Earth Gardens, I worked for several years as a mental health social worker with refugees resettling to Louisville through both Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Although I’m a social worker and not a therapist, I worked connecting them with mental health resources, addressing substance use, dealing with domestic violence and increasing community capacity to serve.
To say I had found the world where things happened was an understatement. To say I had found my calling was just as apparent.
And here’s what I found and continue to find in this world where no one is the same and everything happens. I find that these people who in different lands experienced many of the same traumas — war, violence, sexual attacks — are consistently some of the kindest and happiest people I know. I cannot explain it, but I have experienced it too consistently to question it.
With very rare exceptions, they are grateful and they want to give back. They are always bringing gifts and sharing food to show how thankful they are. So many times I have said, “But I am just doing my job.” And they say, “Yes, and we are so thankful.”
I find that folks who come as refugees are often happier than many of us. Happier than most of us. So many of us say, “I’m not going to be happy until I have this much money.”
And they say, “Oh my gosh, I get to go to work and I get to grow food and my kids are right here and I’ve got grandbabies.” I watch them make great lives out of very little, materially, because the values they hold are not financial.
I find that they understand who they are because of who their families have been. Many people resettling here are from highly agrarian countries where their ancestors have farmed for centuries. They are farmers still, even living in an apartment in urban Louisville. They must grow food. They must provide for their families and neighbors. They may work at GE, but they are farmers. And they are thrilled to have a small parcel of land. When I see how much that land means to them, I realize what I’ve taken for granted.
I find that these people I have the privilege of walking alongside teach me so much, and I’m not just talking about the large life lessons I’ve mentioned here. Growers with Common Earth Gardens have shown me that, by comparison, I’m a careless gardener.
They have taught me to view familiar food, like butternut squash, differently as they grow it for the tender (and delicious) greens. They convinced me that bitter melon really will lower your blood pressure. And they’ve ushered me into that world I was looking for as a child, where no one is the same and everything happens. And I am so thankful.