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Refugee-focused community garden celebrates its first year

Kerry Sprague

Freedom Garden

ANN ARBOR—Grown from an idea cultivated by University of Michigan student Phimmasone Kym Owens, an area of U-M’s Campus Farm has been dubbed “The Freedom Garden”—a space where refugee clients can grow their own food through community gardening.

This refugee-centered garden, which sits on just more than a half-acre, is a collaboration between Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County and Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.

With the help of Campus Farm Program Manager Jeremy Moghtader, the garden’s founding members turned a previously unused, grass-covered space 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.

Freedom Garden

Freedom Garden

The inspiration for the refugee garden came from Owens’ 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.

“In January 1981, I arrived in Chicago as a refugee from Laos and escaped communist rule and ‘The Secret War’ aftermath,” she said. “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.”

Owens said neighborhood grocery stores lacked the kind of food they were used to. Ethnic stores were far away, and transportation and funds were challenges.

“These are some of the same issues current refugees face,” she said.

Considering her history as a refugee and passion for gardening, Owens envisioned an autonomous, client-driven garden space where users could maintain culture and language, share generational knowledge and provide comfort through community and food.

With the idea of a community refugee garden formed, Owens reached out to Jewish Family Services in spring 2021 and pitched her idea. They were quickly on board and began searching for grant funding.

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.

“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,” Kolenic said.

JFS board member Susan Fisher said she enjoyed visiting the garden and learning 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,” Fisher said.

“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 U.S. 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. The partnership has been awarded a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program. 

JFS and MBGNA will partner to provide education and community gardening opportunities and will offer participants support toward starting their own farms.