Refugee-focused community garden celebrates its first year

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-focused garden sits on over half an acre and is jointly operated by Washtenaw 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 client has complete autonomy over the garden space, choosing what and how to plant there. (Photo credit: Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum)

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 the spring of 2021 to pitch her idea.

'The Freedom Garden' is located on over half an acre of previously unused space on UM's campus farm.  (Photo credit: Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum)
‘The Freedom Garden’ is located on over half an acre of previously unused space on UM’s campus farm. (Photo credit: Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum)

The first obstacle came as a surprise — one of the grants required the group to acquire land first, leading Owens to connect with both Moghtader and MBGNA director 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 delighted children enjoying the toys and games that are readily 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 has been awarded a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Refugee Agriculture Partnership Program. JFS and her MBGNA have partnered to provide educational and community her gardening opportunities and support for participants to start their own farms.

If you are interested in supporting the program, please contact Shadin Atiyeh, JFS Director of Employment and Economic Empowerment Programs at Or contact MBGNA Development Director Meredith Olson at


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