Between 2007 and 2009, after 17 years of negotiations in which 100,000 Bhutanese lived as refugees in camps in Nepal, the UNHCR resettled more than 25,000 to third-party countries—including the U.S. So far about 600 have landed in Chicago—mostly concentrated in Albany Park, Edgewater, and Rogers Park.
I'm not going to detail the range of problems they, and other new refugees, are facing here (*you sigh with relief*). But let's just say that, in the hierarchy of issues underfunded, understaffed resettlement agencies like the Heartland Alliance are dealing with, community food security—the access to affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food—isn't high on the list.
That's where Sarah Eichberger comes in. One of the only dieticians in the U.S. working specifically with refugee communities, she assesses the nutritional needs and risk factors of refugees like the three Bhutanese pictured above (who are, from left to right, Damber Pokhrel, Menuka Kafley, and Kushma Pokhrel). After 17 years in a refugee camp, living on fixed rations of beans, lentils, oil, salt, and grain, new arrivals to the U.S. are often anemic, with depressed immune systems and compound health problems. When they arrive stateside they can quickly develop hypertension and diabetes from an unfamiliar Western diet, and gain weight from a suddenly sedentary lifestyle
Why are refugees at greater risk at being food insecure? For one, the language barrier makes it hard to get a job; many refugees are also unaware of additional food benefits they may be eligible for. They may not know they can use a Link card at the farmers' market, for example, and—after years in the camps—they may have no idea how to budget. Thanks to years of harassment in Bhutan, refugees are likely to be mistrustful of government. "It was not a democratic country, so we could not speak freely out of fear of the government," said Kushma Pokhrel, through interpreter Uma Devi Mishra (herself a Bhutanese refugee and now a community health worker with Heartland Health Outreach), at this morning's Chicago Food Policy Summit panel on community food security, adding that there was widespread fear among Bhutanese in Chicago that the DHS office is really the police station, and that if they go in and ask for help they will get arrested.
Factor in a general lack of familiarity with common Western, industrialized foods, and things can get blackly comic. In one instance, said Eichberger, she discoverd a refugee client was using the cans she received from a food pantry to decorate her apartment—she didn't realize they actually contained food.
To address all these needs, and foster connections between the Bhutanese community and their new neighbors, Eichberger started two community gardens, Ruby Garden in Rogers Park's Schreiber Park and another in Chase Park, in Edgewater. And I have to say that while community gardening stories by definition tend to the warm and fuzzy, hearing the gardeners talk about the joy they've gotten from being able to grow fresh fruits and vegetables as they did years ago, before they fled Bhutan, was pretty damn heartwarming.
"It was so nice that we had the food grown by our own hands," said Menuka Kafley. "I learn from my parents that everything we have we need to share with the family and the community, so in that way we share everything we grow in the garden. The old people in our community were so happy to see the fresh fruit and vegetables that we grew. The old people wanted to come join us and grow food."
The only drawback so far, added Damber Pokhrel, has been adjusting to the restrictions of urban living. "In Bhutan, whatever we needed for food in our daily life we would grow ourselves. We only went to the market to buy clothes." When she came to Chicago and went to examine the Heartland Alliance garden, "I saw this very small area and thought, 'How can we grow anything in this tiny space?'"
If you're curious, the garden project was also featured on WBEZ's Worldview this morning.Martha Bayne is also tweeting FamilyFarmed @soupandbread.