Church-hosted refugee gardens prove drought-resistant

Harvest time in Michigan found refugee gardeners in Grand Rapids, Mich., satisfied with a generous yield despite this year's hot, dry summer.

Refugee Garden
Om Koirala, a Nepali Bhutanese refugee, is the community leader for the Ascension Lutheran and Holy Cross gardens.  Photo: Erika Iverson.

Harvest time in Michigan found refugee gardeners in Grand Rapids, Mich., satisfied with a generous yield despite this year’s hot, dry summer. 

The 89 Bhutanese and Burmese refugee families grew corn, tomatoes, peppers, onions, potatoes and mustard greens in three community gardens sponsored by Bethany Christian Services’ Refugee Resettlement Services, a CWS affiliate. 

Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Ascension Lutheran Church and the Grand Rapids International Fellowship hosted the gardens on their property and supplied the necessary water - rendering the gardens drought-proof!

The Grand Rapids congregations are part of a growing trend of faith community involvement in sponsoring refugee community gardens.  CWS is encouraging such involvement, noting its contribution to ensuring newly arrived refugees an adequate supply of nutritious food and to helping counteract the influence of such U.S. food practices as overconsumption of fat, sugar and processed foods.

“Such practices can exacerbate health problems of those refugees who had already suffered inadequate nutrition while living in camps for extended periods of time,” commented CWS Immigration and Refugee Program Director Erol Kekic.

Refugee community gardens are in line with the CWS strategic goals to reduce hunger and improve the nutrition of vulnerable individuals, particularly children, Kekic added.  And they have the further advantage of helping foster relationships among refugees, members of the host congregation, and the wider community.

These gardens helped the refugees stretch their food budgets and supplement their kitchens with fresh food, said Kate Law, Community Gardens Coordinator at Bethany Christian Services, Grand Rapids.  The gardens also “keep them doing what they grew up and like doing.  Many of them had gardens in their homelands so it’s connecting them back to their roots.”

All the Grand Rapids gardeners put money in at the beginning of the year for a plot and the money also goes to buy tools, and other updates need for the garden.  People say what they need and what they want done, and then Bethany Christian Services coordinates it.  Refugees come out to help with projects such as clean up, putting up fences and more. 

Each family “farms” its own plot.  The gardeners take care of their plots year-round, adding compost off-season to enrich the soil.  Refugees buy their own seeds, and Bethany Christian Services staff and volunteers provide technical support and help with infrastructure improvements like storage sheds, irrigation systems – and wire fencing to keep hungry rabbits and possums out!

Congregations hosting refugee gardens on their property is one model for faith community facilitation of refugee gardens.  Here are two others:

  • In Comer, Ga., Jubilee Partners, an intentional Christian community, hosts “The Neighbors’ Field, a plot of arable land farmed by refugees from Burma living in Madison and Oglethorpe counties.  Refugees come to Jubilee through CWS affiliate Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA) and the International Rescue Committee.  This garden features prominently in a recent three-part series in the Athens, Ga., Banner-Herald about Karen ethnic refugees, including Eh Kaw Htoo.  To read it, go to and search “Eh Kaw Htoo.”
  • In Hudsonville, Mich., the Pamoja (Swahili for “together”) Garden has its roots in Hudsonville’s Immanuel Christian Reformed Church.  The congregation has worked with CWS affiliate Bethany Christian Services to cosponsor refugees from Albania, Bosnia, Iran and Liberia.  It started the Pamoja Garden eight years ago on land owned by the Michigan Celery Co-op, a farmer-owned sales and marketing cooperative.  Farming in 2012 were three Somali Bantu families comprising more than three dozen people.  The Pamoja Garden was featured on this year’s CWS World Food Day placemat.


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