A sure sign of summer is the garden growing at First Baptist Church of Wheaton.  For the past eight or nine years, First Baptist has tilled up a large patch of land at the edge of the church’s property for former refugees, many of whom live in the apartments next door to the church, to plant gardens.   A few weeks back Dave Davis, a church volunteer, was rototilling the garden patch when his work caught the attention of two Burmese mothers who were picking up their kids from First Baptist’s Toddlers Campus.

“One lady timidly came up to me on the rototiller and I shut it down,” Davis explains. “She asked, with eyebrows high, ‘Can we come and put in our sticks?’” Davis said they could and his questioner turned and waved a hand to her friend and both women hurried off. “Stakes were in the ground within 10 minutes of my finishing tilling.”

Within two hours, all the plots were taken. “I think it is popular.”

For the refugees, gardening provides a way to connect their former home, food and culture with their new life in the suburbs of Chicago.

Tuan Tial is one of the gardeners at First Baptist. Tial, like many of her neighbors, originally came from the Chin state of Burma. “We Chin people were farmers at home so when we come here we like to grow our food,” Tial says. “And some of the things we like to eat we cannot find in the stores here or they’re very expensive.”

For example Chin baung, which translates as “sour leaf,” is a popular plant in Burma and amongst Chin gardeners in America. A type of hibiscus, chin baung can be dried as a seasoning or cooked like spinach and is also believed to have medicinal value.

Since refugees often work in relatively low wage jobs as they build up work history and learn more English, gardening is also a way to stretch paychecks. Because plants like Chin baung are popular among the Burmese, but hard to find, gardeners can supplement their income by selling produce to neighbors, markets and restaurants.

But perhaps most importantly, gardening gives many refugees who cannot work because of age, disability or family responsibilities a way to be productive and use the skills they have developed over generations. “It’s therapeutic,” says WRDA’s Senior Services Specialist, Gordana Kaludjerovic. “It allows them to be in touch with the land, to express themselves and spend time during the day. The whole family gets involved which makes them very happy.”

Each summer compact but fertile gardens dot back yards and small patches of space in apartment complexes around the areas that refugees now call home.

In the city of Chicago, refugees being resettled by World Relief and four other resettlement organizations have been growing and selling crops since 2012. The Global Garden Refugee Training Farm was started with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.  The Global Garden Farm operates in cooperation with the Petersen Garden Project in the Albany Park neighborhood. Farmers earn income by selling to restaurants and caterers but also run a farmers market and sell directly to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers.

Linda Seyler, who started the Global Garden, told The Chicago Reader’s Mike Sula, “[Y]ou’ve got to empathize with what they’re going through. This is what they know how to do and it’s been bottled up inside. It makes them feel like capable people again.”

In Wheaton the gardens have grown out of the initiative of each family and the generosity of churches like First Baptist Wheaton. “This is a little investment in exchange for what seems to be a very popular and wanted thing – namely that they can cultivate with their favorite plants,” Dave Davis says.

“The smiles on the faces of those two ladies were worth the 2 1/2 hours of tilling. I left that day happy that I’d given them something they wanted.”

Summer Youth Programs
Building Skills and Relationships

Kids may be out of school, but the WRDA Children and Youth programs don’t take a break in the summer.  School holidays give time for special activities and special partnerships with activities at local churches.

The highlight of the summer is the World Relief Cup soccer tournament.  Held the Saturday after July 4, this tournament is made possible by the Chicago Eagles, a ministry to children using the international language of football (soccer to those in North America).  Kids are divided into age-level teams and compete for bragging rights and a photo with the World Relief Cup trophy.  But, more than this, it is a time of building relationships, learning sportsmanship and just having fun, which is all too rare for many of these kids who were forced to flee their home countries with their families.  One young man put it simply about World Cup, “This is the best day of my life…”

But WRDA does not serve these children alone.  Many local churches partner with us over the summer for special youth activities.  Refugee children feel the love and support of the church and community through activities such as:

  • Redeemer Community Church providing scholarships for their summer camp to 10 middle school students.This is their third year of making this transforming camp week possible.
  • St. Thomas in Glen Ellyn hosting a summer club that invited refugee kids to learn about gardening in “God’s Garden,” which raises produce to be given to local food pantries.
  • Puente del Pueblo, part of Wheaton Bible Church, hosting a variety of summer activities for refugee and immigrant kids living in West Chicago.
  • First Baptist of Geneva hosting a weekly mother/child play date every Friday in July at an apartment complex where many refugees live.
  • Village Bible Church in Aurora hosting two summer clubs and volunteers coming to help from several area churches.VBC also was the site for a special event for the Bhutanese/Nepali community in partnership with the Living Water Nepali Church of Chicago and the First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas.

Back to school activities will be gearing up soon.  To find out more about how you can volunteer and impact the life of a child, click here.

Here and There
Growing Coffee in Haiti

Just as growing gardens impacts refugees in Illinois, World Relief in Haiti is working to increase the livelihood of Haitian coffee farmers through a partnership with the Foods Resources Bank. 

After many years of economic struggle in Haiti, some of the knowledge and skills of coffee farming had been lost, and some farmers were fearful of the practice of pruning and working with the coffee plants.  World Relief Haiti challenged these farmers to take a chance on a different way of working with their plants, and they experienced exponential increases in their yields, as well as exponential increases to their family incomes.

One coffee farmer, Esperon Figueroa, put it this way, “In my opinion, God Himself sent World Relief to this region with this project. We live off of our coffee, and the diseases and difficulties that we found in our plantations discouraged us from even trying to manage them. Thanks to World Relief, we now have knowledge as to how we can repair our gardens that were in disarray.”

To learn more or to partner with this project that is changing the life of farmers in Haiti, contact Bill Janus at bjanus@wr.org.