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Anthony Raap/MEDILL

The Global Garden combines urban farming and gardening in Albany Park to bring refugees and the community together.

Refugees grow harvest of hope

by Anthony Raap
Dec 12, 2012


Anthony Raap/MEDILL

Global Garden manager Linda Seyler tends to a garden plot after the season's last harvest at the Albany Park urban farm.


Anthony Raap/MEDILL

The Global Garden in Albany Park features a greenhouse where refugees can continue to grow spinach and other produce throughout the winter.

For years, it had been a vacant lot filled with weeds and trash. Then last spring, a mountain of compost arrived along with a backhoe. Before long, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini sprang from the ground.

This reclaimed corner of Lawrence and Sacramento Avenues in Albany Park on Chicago’s North Side is the home of the Global Garden.

The 1.25-acre parcel brings together 42 refugee families from Bhutan and Myanmar who cultivate the soil alongside long-time Chicagoans.

“We’re hoping to create community here,” Global Garden manager Linda Seyler said.

One acre is set aside for urban farming, used by refugees, and the remaining quarter acre is a community garden where aspiring green thumbs can grow their own fruit and vegetables.

The city owns the land but leases it to the nonprofit Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly for $1 a year.

CLESE oversees the urban farm. The Peterson Garden Project, a nonprofit that helped find the land, operates the community garden.

It is one of many community gardens that have sprouted across Chicago in recent years thanks to similar leasing agreements with the city.

In 2012 alone, the Peterson Garden Project installed six gardens throughout the city. In all, Chicago has 65 community gardens, according to the city's parks district.

The refugees sell much of what they grow, but produce from the community garden is meant for home consumption.

Jewell Events Catering was so enamored with the project that it bought everything the refugees harvested last summer, generating $3,200 in sales, Seyler said.

The money was divided among the refugees based on their work hours. Those who put in the most hours at the Global Garden got the biggest cut.

“We are very proud of the Global Garden and their mission and we will continue to support their efforts in the coming years,” Jewell marketing director Myles Bosack said.

Seyler hopes to expand the refugees’ customer base and set up an eventual on-site farmers’ market.

The long-term goal is to help refugees launch their own farms, distributorships or restaurants, Seyler said.

Many of these refugees have agricultural backgrounds. Seyler teaches them how to farm in this climate.

“Once they figure out the seasonality, they’re going to be the leaders in urban agriculture,” she said. “They’re going to be teaching everybody else. They know farming.”

The Global Garden is more than an investment in soil; it’s an investment in community. Part of its mission is to integrate refugees with others in Albany Park.

Throughout the summer, people told Seyler they never realized how many refugees lived in their neighborhood.

“It is beneficial for everybody,” she said. “For refugees to be working next to non-refugees, to be gardening side by side and for all the neighbors to get to know each other.”

The garden’s other mission is to reconnect displaced farmers with the land. For those who’ve been displaced, it’s frightening to be “plopped into this place that’s so different in so many ways,” Seyler said.

But farming is one thing they can hang onto.

“It’s such a healing thing,” she said. “Putting your hands in the soil — it’s amazing. It’s grounding.”

In addition to the urban farm, refugees also have individual plots at the Global Garden. Here they grow melons, beans and other produce for their families, allowing them to take home freshly grown food they otherwise couldn’t afford.

Refugees at the farm are on a limited budget. Growing their own vegetables alleviates some of their financial stress.

“Now I have enough. Now food stamps are enough to get my family through the month,” Seyler said the refugee farmers have told her.

This story isn’t just about urban farming. It’s also about urban renewal.

The Global Garden is built on a failed condo development site. For years, the lot had sat empty.

Then in fall 2011, Seyler contacted the city about acquiring the parcel of land at Lawrence and Sacramento.

CLESE had been given a federal grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to develop an urban farm, but it had trouble finding a large enough space.

LaManda Joy, founder and president of the Peterson Garden Project, suggested that Seyler try to acquire the parcel at Lawrence and Sacramento.

Both recognized there was a need for more green space in Albany Park, and the city agreed.

“This location is perfect because so many of the refugees live nearby,” Seyler said.

CLESE secured the land last spring. Volunteers donated time and labor to building the farm and garden.

“Giving back to the community is something that’s important to me,” said Josh Randall, who helped place the large planting beds and installed an underground drainage system.

The Global Garden’s dedication ceremony was in July. Seyler and Joy said they were pleased with how the project came together. Both agree the garden’s first growing season has been successful.

“For our part of it — the community gardening part — it’s great,” Joy said. “They’re allotment gardens, so every family has their own space to grow what they want.”

The urban farm will continue to produce spinach and other produce throughout the winter in an on-site greenhouse. But in November, the 163-plot community garden closed for the season.

Jim Javenkoski, a non-refugee who has worked in the food manufacturing and food service industries, grew watermelon, cantaloupe, peppers and other produce in a raised bed plot at the community garden. He has volunteered to help maintain the garden next year.

“I feel a sense of ownership and a sense of devotion to this place,” he said.

Community members who are not refugees pay $65 for a plot, and the Peterson Garden Project provides them with gardening tools and materials.

It’s meant to lower the barrier for people who wish to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Javenkoski said. “It’s community. It’s people around you who are as novice as you are.”

As the summer progressed, Javenkoski realized the health and wellness benefits of gardening. He found himself interacting with others in the garden and enjoyed being in the sunshine.

“When you come into the garden,” he said, “you forget about the all the urban hustle and bustle.”

View Cross section of Chicago community gardens in a larger map