The Refugee Garden

 

I was headed just north of Atlanta, to visit a friend of mine I hadn't seen in over a decade, who was part of an intriguing movement that'd been written up in The Guardian. The article had captured my interest enough to warrant the stop in the small, out of the way town that I hadn't known existed a week earlier.

Heidi and I dodged the pelting rain and went out for Indian food, talking rapidly to cover the years, though of course we couldn't. After we finished. I followed her car eagerly down a road that ran along the other side of the railroad tracks, until we turned off and entered an old-fashioned apartment complex. The buildings had brown roofs that wrapped halfway down the exterior walls, with doleful, square windows cut through the shingling. My first impressions was that it was badly in need of a remodel, that it would likely not receive while it was home to such financially vulnerable residents.

As I crept over the speed bumps, neighbors passed back and forth, and young boys ran across the parking lot boldly. Women in beautifully embroidered saris strolled along, and a small child with shy brown eyes watched me from behind a makeshift curtain that was draped haphazardly behind double-glass doors.

This was Clarkston, Georgia; a square-mile town that housed the largest refugee population in the south.

Heidi waved me in, “Come see our apartment.” I followed up the walk, and we stopped before a white door, “Of course ours is the only one with the security door,” she laughed, half-apologetically, and she turned the key.

“Have you guys been broken into before?” My eyes swept the sidewalk, taking in the slightly rough feel we associate with poverty.

“Yeah, a few times,” she admitted with a small shrug, “But never while we were home, so that’s good.”

I followed her inside, and stood in a foyer with purple chalk walls that was adorned with the artwork of the neighbor children. Her housemate looked up from an ornate puzzle at the dining room table and waved a distracted hello.

“This is Erin. She’s the director of Friends of Refugees’ Community Garden.”

Friends of Refugees was a nonprofit in Clarkston that helped support refugees post-resettlement with many different programs. Embrace was one of its programs whose mission was to help refugee women with prenatal and postnatal care, working as ambassadors and interpreters so the refugee mothers would understand their rights and options for giving birth in the States. It was the opportunity to work with Embrace that had drawn Heidi to Georgia.

“Hey.” Erin looked at me curiously. “Sorry about the mess,” she offered, without embarrassment. She seemed very no-nonsense and I liked her immediately. The apology was unnecessary—the room was bright and orderly, with meditation cushions along one wall and murals on another, accompanied by quotes of Wendell Berry, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa. It was a soothing space, full of light.

Heidi looked over to Erin, “I’m just going to show her the community garden.”

Erin nodded, and looked back to the table, deep in the zone, eyes darting about as she turned an oddly shaped piece over and over in her fingertips, “Show her the greenhouse, too. The keys are over there.”

I slipped back into my sandals, said goodbye to Erin, and followed Heidi out the door. We walked slowly over the wet sidewalks alongside the apartment buildings, and I listened to the neighbors speaking in languages I couldn’t place, as they leaned against open doorframes, and sat on their heels in the living room. Eyes turned to us curiously. We smiled back, and Heidi waved. The sidewalk joined a smooth, foot-worn path between the tall pines and the conversations fell away behind us, swallowed by the songs of birds, and the slow drip of water from the trees.

The pine-strewn ground was soft and unstable from the heavy rain, and I slipped and caught myself as we walked along the iron-rod fence. I turned towards a dull thudding from within the gate, and saw a white-haired Nepali man lifting a rod of bamboo high above his head, then driving it down into the earth—again and again in unfaltering cadence, until the hole was deep enough for it to stand. He paused and looked up when I said hello, and smiled pleasantly back.

We came to the gate at the edge, but the lock was stuck, so we changed directions and walked the perimeter to the gate, and Heidi began to tell me about the town.

“So, Clarkston is only the size of a square mile, but the refugee population is so dense that there’s over seventy languages spoken at the local high school—"

“Seventy?” I gaped. “How do the teachers manage?”

“It’s difficult. They have interpreters, and after-school youth programs and that helps, and also English Literacy programs for the whole family." She paused as we navigated around some low-hanging pine branches that stood near the gate, "Besides Embrace, there's also a program called Career Hub that helps train the refugees for jobs and a big Etsy cooperative that women can work at for income.”

The key worked on a gate farther down, and we let ourselves in. The space was huge, maybe half a football field. A little tire swing painted yellow hung from between two trees. We walked past two enormous water tanks to the garden plots that were blooming with a vivacity and wildness that reminded me of the secret garden. Here, all sounds of the traffic and city were gone; there was only the sounds of the birds, the rain dripping from heavily-laden leaves, and our soft footfalls.

All around us were makeshift plots, brilliant combinations of frugality and creativity, with the circumferences of the individual gardens constructed from salvaged items like broken ladders, rusted bicycles, wire-mattress frame, and old headboards. The vines and creeping things clung and climbed, coaxed by patient and skilled hands. Bird houses hung cheerfully on the corner posts of the plots—it moved me to think of refugee children making these little homes for birds, so soon after fleeing their own.

The garden was alive with color—turquoise, bright yellows, greens, cobalt blues—and for a while, Heidi allowed me to take it in silently. A sign by the berry bushes drew my eyes as we walked, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Further to the west was a plot with well-worn gardening gloves hanging from the wire, fresh dirt covering the fingertips. They were the same gloves my grandma used when she tended the earth in her garden; I wondered if the person to whom these belonged was a grandparent, and if this little plot grew enough to feed her family.

Down the way was a green signpost with many offshoots—blue painted letters and numbers covering each. The signpost read: Kathmandu, Nepal—13109km; Kinshasa, DRC—1186.40km; Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar—14080.3km. And so on. Each carefully calculated distance was accompanied by a hopeful blue arrow, pointing in every direction of the compass. I wondered how often the children stood before this sign to trace the trajectory of the arrow off into the sky or through the earth, hoping they’d find their way back home someday.

I turned away and moved further down the path towards an amphitheater with green shade cells that Heidi told me was for events, like the one they’d just had to welcome all the new refugees.

“It was so great,” she gushed with a grin, “Each of the programs had different activities for the families, it was so fun for everyone.”

“What did Embrace do?”

Her hazel eyes lit up, “We did photography for the families and printed the pictures in little frames to give them. People had to leave so quickly, you know? Not many were able to bring anything with them, and so we wanted to give them something to hang on their walls. To help make this home.”

We came out of the plots into a more open area with picnic tables. A rickety fence ran the perimeter, with a fifteen-foot sun painted on the planks; half of the sun lay below the earth, while the other half was smiling, as if a new, good day was rising over the garden.

Nearby was the newly constructed greenhouse, carefully designed and built by the Georgia Tech Students as a volunteer project. The gravel crunched beneath my feet as I examined the long rows of PVC with little pods cubbied out for the plants.

“Soon this tank will be full of fish, and they’ll help fertilize the plants." Heidi followed the line of pods with her finger. "The water from their tank is going to circulate and runoff into these pods when it's finished.”

I’d been despairing of my country lately, but being in this garden, with the life and love everywhere around me made me realize there was still kindness and hope growing here, in this soil. Right here, in the midst of swirling fears, and bigotry, there were people who got it, who saw past differences and reached out in humanity in all directions to extend hospitality to strangers.

And somehow, it seemed to be working.

As we returned to the gate, there was a piece of art near the entrance that caught my eye. It was simply constructed, just thin strips of recycled wood hodge-podged together, covered with lines from a poem by Wendell Berry, and it held the first words the wanderers and volunteers would see as they entered the garden:

Abandon

as in love or sleep

holds

them to their way

clear in the ancient faith:

what we need is here.

And we pray

not for new earth

or heaven

but to be quiet in heart

and in eye

clear.

What we need is here.