33 MILLION PEOPLE UPROOTED BY WAR
I had only chosen to wear this Doctors Without Borders t-shirt today because its brown color matched the sweatpants I had already pulled on. The message it proclaims on the back were not intentionally linked to my plans for the day. It is a beautiful Saturday morning, May Day, and the gardeners at Alice’s Garden are making their way through the gate for their first look inside as this two-acre garden continues to be transformed into an urban oasis.
Come, they do. Grandmothers looking forward to growing food for the grandchildren they are raising. Community Elders eager to reclaim a connection to the land from many decades past. Young families excited about gardening for the first time. A midwife. A taxi driver. A postman. A dentist. A housewife. A self-proclaimed philosopher. A nurse. An engineer. A teacher. An artist. A physician. A construction worker. A social worker. A mother simply trying to find her way again.
And the refugees, men and women uprooted by war who have sought sanctuary in this country. They arrive in two groups: a group of Hmong farmers who have a long history of gardening at Alice’s Garden and a group of Burmese, new to the city, new to the garden.
The Hmong know where they want to garden. They want their same exact spots. Once again, as I have done in numerous conversations over the past three months, I explain that we do want you off by yourself. We want to get to know you better. I plead. We want you to get to know us. They point to where scallions, collards, mustard greens have already sprouted. They remind me of how long they have tended the soil here. Fifteen, twenty years. I want to honor that.
We are now twenty minutes into this negotiation. I feel stuck. I speak directly to the family member who is translating. Filled with emotion, I speak of how this city is segregated enough and how inside this garden fence we have to do better than that. I talk about their history, being uprooted from their homeland and how that is not what I am trying to do again in this garden. If we cannot even grow food side by side in this city, what else will we be able to do together? We need each other. I look directly at the Elder woman who holds the power. Our people can longer move through this city and this garden as if we do not see each other. The expression on her face, once my words are translated, is one of full understanding, compassion, respect. We come to an agreement that satisfies everyone.
My new, Burmese friends are just so happy to know they will be able to grow food once again. They, too, are farmers by tradition. Their excitement and broad smiles fill the empty spaces in the garden. I watch as Kimberly gives them a tour of the land and find myself wishing I could see this garden through their eyes. As one of the Burmese men is exiting the garden he points to the back of my t-shirt and says, “You know that number changes every day.” It is a statement, not a question. That is when I realize what this t-shirt means on this morning. That is when I am reminded of the beauty and power of Alice’s Garden beyond the purpose of growing food. We are creating an inner-city village of restoration, hope, the fulfilling of promises. I simply nod and twist my mouth, acknowledging his words. There is nothing more to say.