An area of UM’s campus farm, born from an idea cultivated by University of Michigan student Phimmasone Kym Owens, is called “Freedom Garden.” This is a space where a refugee client can grow his own food through his gardening in the community.
This refugee-centered garden, on more than half an acre, was created in partnership with Washtenau County Jewish Family Services, Massey Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.
With the help of Campus Farm Program Manager Jeremy Moghtader, the Garden’s founding members transformed a previously unused grassy space into a fertile and productive plot.
The summer of 2022 was the first year the group was able to grow produce, and the harvest was impressive, including a variety of vegetables and flowers.
The inspiration for the Refugee Garden came from Owens’ experience as a refugee. Owens sought solace through food, but felt its importance to other refugees.
“In January 1981, I arrived in Chicago as a refugee from Laos, fleeing communist rule and the aftermath of a ‘secret war,'” she said. “We lived in several Thai refugee camps for about a year. My family arrived with some items and clothes on their backs.
“We come from a jungle climate, and arriving in Chicago in the middle of winter was a rude awakening. A foreign country was the weather, the land, the people, the culture, and the food. We were craving something, but our food didn’t have it.
Owens said neighborhood grocery stores are running out of the types of food they are used to. Ethnic shops are far away, and transportation and funds were a challenge.
“These are some of the same problems facing refugees today,” she said.
Considering her history as a refugee and her passion for gardening, Owens has created a self-reliant, client-friendly environment where users can preserve culture and language, share knowledge between generations, and provide comfort through community and food. I envisioned a led garden space.
With the idea for a community refugee garden taking shape, Owens reached out to Jewish Family Services in spring 2021 to pitch her idea. They immediately joined and started looking for grants.
The first obstacle came as a surprise. His one of the grants was that the group needed to acquire land first, which led Owens to connect with both his Moghtader and his MBGNA director He Tony Kolenic. Shortly thereafter, MBGNA and JFS formed a partnership to formally create this refugee-centered garden.
“MBGNA is uniquely positioned to honor the personalities of new community members through their connection to the land and the natural world and help make this community ours,” said Kolenic.
JFS board member Susan Fisher said she enjoys visiting the gardens and learning about the different ways JFS clients express their ethnicity in what and how they plant and nurture.
“I loved learning that the garden is not only about food, but also provides a social environment for individuals of different backgrounds. I am surrounded by children who are happy to have fun with the toys and games available,” Fisher said.
“This garden is clearly an oasis for those who have endured a lot on their journey to come to the United States and eventually become a U.S. citizen. I am excited to see it become a reality.”
The garden’s near-term future is assured as MBGNA and JFS pursue continued growth and influence. The partnership is awarded his three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Refugee Agriculture Partnership Program.
JFS and MBGNA have partnered to provide educational and community gardening opportunities and support for participants to start their own farms.