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Albany Park's hidden refugee farm

Recent arrivals from Burma and Bhutan have built a teeming garden in the city.

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Many mornings Pak Suan is in the garden by 7 AM, alone. That's not long after he finishes the graveyard shift at Rivers Casino, where he works as a custodian. He spends an hour or so harvesting, or watering the plants in either the main hoop house or the smaller one he built himself near the back of the lot. He pieced it together with leftover sheets of opaque plastic and $300 worth of PVC piping, which arcs over his family's plot.

Among other things, he's growing mustard greens, tomatoes, daikon, and a variety of hibiscus called roselle, whose Burmese name is chin baung, or "sour leaf." He's also nurturing a good number of plants he calls kyan ka, which produce a green, slightly bitter fruit that's sort of a cross between a tomato and an eggplant. He says it's eaten only in Burma's western Chin state, where he was born and raised. He lived there until he was forced to flee to Thailand 15 years ago, when he was 20.

Thin green tendrils of bitter melon vine weave through the uncovered skeleton of his hoop house, and their warty fruits drip from the arched white pipes. The Burmese that tend Albany Park's Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm love their bitter melon, as do the Bhutanese. There are four different varieties growing on the lot right now.

The one-acre organic farm exists to help integrate refugees into their new lives in Chicago. Most of them are former farmers themselves, and the 83 individual family plots on the farm are almost evenly divided between 75 families—Burmese from various tribes who fled war and persecution at home, and ethnic Nepalese who were forced from their homes in Bhutan. They began arriving via a handful of local refugee-aid agencies over the last five or six years, but quite a few of them, like Pak Suan, are recent arrivals. He got here in January 2011.

The farm sits on a city-owned lot just to the west of the river and Ronan Park. It's difficult to see from Lawrence, because the front quarter acre is occupied by another organization: the Peterson Garden Project, a three-year-old community gardening initiative, inspired by the victory garden movement of World War II, that aims to introduce a very different demographic—local urbanites—to the practice of growing their own food.

Apart from sharing a water supply (fed by a fire hydrant) the two gardens have little else in common—starting with appearances. The Peterson Garden Project's 212 four-by-eight-foot raised beds are neatly lined up in rows, with each assigned a number and many marked by a square-foot grid system that carefully plots each plant's place. This method is intended for gardening intensely in small spaces, but it's been a cool summer and many of the plots look thin. In my own bed, #71, my hot peppers failed to blossom, my cabbage neglected to form, and my five tomato plants are spindly, sickly things that produced only a few watery fruits.

Many of the gardeners at the front of the lot, who've paid $75 to maintain a plot for the season, accent their plots with a certain style. Tomatoes are supported by cages painted in bright primary colors, beans climb store-bought wooden trellises that Martha Stewart wouldn't sneer at, ornamental (and nonfunctioning) lanterns decorate some beds, and an occasional ceramic garden gnome lurks among the plants. One woman, whom I once overheard apologizing to her sunflower plant for underwatering, has garnished her sparsely planted plot with a large, red, Styrofoam Valentine heart.

By contrast, the 40-foot-long plots tended by the Burmese and Bhutanese are teeming with growth, spilling over the borders of their beds, climbing makeshift trellises built from disarticulated shipping pallets, box springs, and webs of plastic strapping. Dark, mushroom-compost-enriched soil bulges against the plots' borders, which are made up of discarded doors, shutters, dresser panels, tree stumps, and pieces of fiberboard. Unsupported tomato plants tangle with cucumbers, squash, and beds of tender greens started from produce purchased from Uptown Vietnamese groceries. One farmer supports opo squash plants with a skeletonized picnic table umbrella, while another grows tatsoi in a blue plastic baby pool. Fat orange pumpkins squat atop rickety wooden cages, while some naturally occurring plants that most Western gardeners yank at first sight are left to flourish among the mustard greens, chard, amaranth, and mizuna, because they're just as tasty, and even more nutritious.

If the gardeners at the front of the lot are struggling with the unusually cool, wet summer, the farmers in the back are flourishing in spite of it.

The Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm sits on a city-owned lot just to the west of the river and Ronan Park. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • The Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm sits on a city-owned lot just to the west of the river and Ronan Park.

"That's because they're all professionals," says Linda Seyler, the farm's manager. Seyler is a Peace Corps vet (Thailand, '84-'86), with two degrees in agricultural science—but four years ago she wasn't doing much with them, working in part as a grant writer for the Coalition for Limited English Speaking Elderly (CLESE). Then she saw an announcement for the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Project, a funding program administered though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement. The project aims to help refugees develop sources of income and promote healthy eating by training them in current agricultural practices. Seyler worked up a proposal in cooperation with the Heartland Alliance, and in the process got to know a lot of people in the city's urban-agriculture scene, including LaManda Joy, founder of the Peterson Garden Project.

When CLESE won a $240,000 federal grant three years ago to start the refugees' garden, Seyler still didn't have a dedicated plot of land to start the farm, but she did have refugees, mostly Bhutanese, Burmese, and a few Burundians, recruited though the city's various resettlement agencies. They began working at different community gardens around the north side, including the original garden Joy started at Peterson and Artesian. But Seyler needed to find a dedicated space that was easy for the refugees to access. "Their lives are very stressful and they get here feeling like fish out of water culturally—plus the stresses of being low-income in an urban environment. They don't have a whole lot of time. They're raising families. They have parents, work multiple jobs, and their kids are in school, or not."

It was Joy who first identified the vacant lot on Lawrence as a potential home for a new Peterson community garden as well as the refugee-training farm. Initially the Chicago Park District planned to take over and build an extension of Ronan Park, but the project was hung up when it couldn't find funding. Seyler and Joy applied for a lease with the city in September 2011, but it wasn't approved until the following April. In the meantime Seyler started seedlings in the greenhouse of another community garden. "I didn't know where I was going to plant them," she says.

When the lease finally came through, the city charged them $1 (though it still hasn't collected). "And then I talked to LaManda and ceded the front quarter acre to her," Seyler says. "We are doing this together."

They trucked in 990 cubic yards of mushroom compost the first year, but a volunteer with a backhoe was called away after only a third of the beds were built. The refugees built the rest of themselves with wheelbarrows—42 plots initially.

"I've learned so much from them," Seyler says, "from watching what they do."

There are a few large apartment buildings around the corner on Ainslie where a number of the farmers and their families live. That's where Pak Suan, his wife, and his two kids reside. It's also the home of Hasta Bhattarai and his family. Bhattarai is the program coordinator for the Bhutanese Community Association of Illinois and an interpreter for many of the refugees from that country. Like them, he's an ethnic Nepalese who was born in southern Bhutan, a population known as the Lhotshampa, or "people of the south," a largely Hindu minority that had settled on fertile, underpopulated land beginning in the mid-19th century.

The Lhotshampa got along with the majority Buddhist Drukpa until the mid-80s, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuk—ironically also responsible for the concept known as "Gross National Happiness"—set in motion an ethnic cleansing campaign that eventually expelled some 100,000 ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan. Bhattarai's family abandoned their farmland and embarked on a three-day journey on foot across India's West Bengal state to one of seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal, while he stayed behind in an attempt to finish high school.

He joined them at the camps in 1992, and was one of the few refugees who were allowed out to work and study. He served as a vice principal at a private school and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature while returning to the camp to teach at a school there for more than 16 years.

In March 2008 the UN's refugee agency began resettling the Lhotshampa in seven different countries. The U.S. agreed to take in 60,000, and that August Bhattarai arrived here with his wife, Thandra. The Bhattarais are among the few Bhutanese refugees who have received higher educations (she has a master's degree in physics from a Nepalese university). But when they got to Chicago, Bhattarai got his first job as a dishwasher at Macaroni Grill at O'Hare airport.

The family has had its own plot on the Albany Park farm for the last two years. "My parents and my grandparents—they all worked on a farm," he says. "Anywhere in the country where we lived, the main occupation of the people was farming." He's growing a plant he got from a refugee in Kansas City that looks similar to Pak Suan's kyan ka. He says the family grows enough produce between the spring and fall that they don't need to shop at a grocery.

Hasta Bhattarai, Prajapati Pokhrel, and Thand Oo - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Hasta Bhattarai, Prajapati Pokhrel, and Thand Oo

But it's not to the level and intensity of the farming his parents did back home. For one thing, southern Bhutan has a continuous growing season. And though they're growing on only a fraction of the land they held in Bhutan, the Bhattarais don't have the space or the means to preserve their harvest. Other farmers also complain that they don't have the resources to preserve their crops, which is especially problematic with the truncated growing season here. But that doesn't stop lifelong farmer Prajapati Pokhrel from making gundruk, which can best be compared to kimchi or sauerkraut. He'll harvest some hearty, leafy greens, or saag, pack them in a large plastic yogurt container, top them off with water, close the lid, and leave them in the sun. In a week's time the greens are sour and pungent and he spreads them out on sections of wooden fencing near the edge of the farm. After they dry they're collected and eventually reconstituted into soups or curries. Some of the Burmese do the very same thing, calling the preserve chin bat.

Pokhrel doesn't work due to a back injury, and he and his wife live with their three grown children in Aurora. Seyler picks him up on her way to the farm from her home in Montgomery. Upon arriving in the U.S. in 2011, he first moved to Albany Park, into one of the apartment buildings around the corner from the farm. But one day when his kids were out working and he and his wife were shopping, someone broke into the apartment and stole several thousand dollars in cash and jewelry. This prompted them to move to the suburbs (and to open a bank account). There's a small Lhotshampa population there, and a Nepalese grocery where Pokhrel can sell the produce he grows.

For Pak Suan, things are more settled than they've been in decades. He says he left Burma (aka Myanmar) for Thailand after getting assaulted by soldiers, then spent 12 years in Malaysia, much of that time as an undocumented worker. He worked as an electrician on large, modern construction projects in Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur, but he also lived in an illegal camp in the forest with other Chin Burmese, hunting wild boar and trying to evade snakes. He says he and his campmates had to avoid or bribe the police just to get to work­—and that he once spent 51 days in a jail for undocumented workers before being deported back to Thailand. Eventually the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees helped him get proper documentation, and he continued working legally in Malaysia. Along the way he got married and had a son, before coming here.

He now shares a two-bedroom apartment with his wife, two children (their daughter was born here), and brother-in-law. His wife stays home and takes care of the kids, and the rent is high for a guy who makes $12.10 an hour. Taking home armfuls of mustard greens, chin baung, and kyan ka every day to eat and to sell eases the burden.

He, Seyler, Pokhrel, and others help tend the long, orderly rows of communal crops surrounding the hoop house, separate from the refugees' family plots, including tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants, Genovese basil, squash, and Swiss chard. The Bhutanese call the latter "American saag," because they'd never seen it before coming here. But they were happy to start growing it and the basil—which they'd never used, either—when they saw the demand for it at their weekly markets, which run every Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning just inside the Sacramento gate.

The bounty of the refugees' communal crops, available at their weekly markets - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • The bounty of the refugees' communal crops, available at their weekly markets

Under a wooden shelter whose roof is carpeted by sprawling squash plants, they set out an assortment of produce from the communal rows for the collective profit of the farm, while a number of the farmers put their own produce out for sale. Someone stands behind a display table fashioned from two plastic horses and a few boards and keeps track of who sells what. Everybody else hangs out on the benches chatting, calling out prices to customers—usually $1 to $2 an item—or making occasional forays out to their plots for more.

The sales reflect the demographics of the neighborhood. Squash blossoms are big with Mexicans. An eastern European family once bought four large bags of green tomatoes. Farmer Thand Oo, who is growing the monstrous opo squash plant twisting above the shelter, once sold a bunch of the leaves to a young Burmese girl for soup.

Occasionally the farmers make outside sales too. Pak Suan regularly sells huge bunches of mustard greens at an apartment building in Rogers Park where several Burmese families live. When his kyan ka is ready to harvest he says he can get $5 a pound for it. An Egyptian man who owns a nearby auto parts store has volunteered to grow molokhia, a bitter green, which turns thick and mucilaginous when boiled. He guarantees he can sell it on behalf of the farm to the many Arabs that live in the neighborhood.

Last year Jewell Events Catering, looking to increase its use of local foods, bought regularly from the farm. "We said, 'Anything that you're able to grow we'll purchase,'" says Myles Bosack, director of marketing for the company. One Thursday afternoon Bosack packed the back of his truck with paper bags filled with parsley, cilantro, squash blossoms, tomatoes, eggplants, and bok choy. He's still buying from the farm, but not weekly, saying he's freeing Seyler up to sell to more restaurants.

The following Saturday Patty Rasmussen, owner of Tre Kronor, packed the trunk of her car with $178 worth of tomatoes, eggplants, sweet pepper, cilantro, and basil.

By virtue of its size, the commercial portion of the farm is making the most money. Most of the individual farmers earn anywhere from $2 to $15 in individual sales per market day. But in terms of yield, Seyler says the individual farmers are far more productive. "You see them letting their mustard go to seed and they're going to save the seed and use it next year because that's what they had to do. They had ten-acre to hundred-acre farms back in Bhutan and Burma."

Back home most of the Burmese and Bhutanese grew their own, bartered with neighbors for what they didn't, and raised animals, which provided fertilizer. Part of their training here is to adapt their agricultural skills to a market economy. Moreover, the farm provides a connection to old lives in a new world that can seem bewildering. Apart from enabling a healthy diet and generating a little cash, the project aims to reconnect the displaced farmers with the land. "If I stepped off the plane and became functionally illiterate when I got off the plane, and didn't know where to buy toothpaste or even how to buy toothpaste—you've got to empathize with what they're going through," Seyler says. "This is what they know how to do and it's been bottled up inside. It makes them feel like capable people again."

Another part of the mission, she says, is to help the refugees start their own farms. "We're supposed to be teaching them commercial farming and connecting them with markets, showing them farm management, how you do it here in Illinois and Chicago. For me that's a very long-term goal, just because of our limited capacity. It takes time to develop."

It takes the kind of time that isn't necessarily guaranteed for the farm. All of the Peterson Garden Project's community gardens are started under the assumption that the land is on loan and won't be available permanently. But the refugee-training program has some additional uncertainty of its own. Even though the commercial portion of the farm makes some money, it's not enough to fully sustain the operation in the next year. And since the project started three years ago with a three-year, nonrenewable federal grant, Seyler is going to have to find funding for year four if she's going to be able to continue.

"We have a lot of community support and people saying, 'No, you can't let this project end,'" she says. "The six refugee-resettlement agencies all have clients that are here, and there are 75 families that are being impacted in a really positive way. If nothing else they have fresh greens on their tables, and it's the foods they know and are able to maintain."

Seyler says the sale of produce has brought in enough money to pay for seed and tools, "but staffing is uncertain."

"I'm gonna be working as a volunteer here half-time as of September 30," she says, "and I can only afford to do that for so long. But no matter what, the farm will continue. Maybe they don't need me."

ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer

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