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Outlook - September 2004

Peace, conversation and cucumbers: Community garden project unites cultures

Wilsi Modro and Aline Rocha, both from Brazil, display the organically grown tomatoes from Union’s Co-SINC garden plot

by Lauren Schwarz
The small plot of gardening space on 48th Street and Pioneers Boulevard may not look like the answer to world peace, but it’s a start for many Lincoln area immigrants and refugees.
        Located only blocks from the Union College campus, the Community Support, Investment & Change (Co-SINC) garden is blossoming. Co-SINC provides Lincoln community members with organic gardening space with special invitation to refugee, immigrant, migrant and low-income families. Tended by individuals from Bosnia, Iraq, Mexico, Guatemala, Japan, England and El Salvador, the garden is more than a place to grow herbs and vegetables. It is a chance to come together, converse and share life experiences.
        Beth Rodacker-Borgens and Danielle Opitz, English as a Second Language (ESL) professors, were excited to learn about the plot located so close to Union’s campus. Because of their strong ties to the international community through their students, Rodacker and Opitz hoped to connect the diverse Union College student population with the Lincoln community. Between six and eight Union students help with planting, weeding and watering the Union College plot.
        Co-SINC participants are given their own plot to fill with corn, tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, flowers, squash, potatoes and other vegetables. All materials are donated including tools, seeds and starter plants. Tools are kept in a shed on the premises, but each gardener is entrusted with the lock combination.
        The garden is completely organic, so gardeners have to be savvy in their methods to avoid pests. Some gardeners plant marigolds next to their tomatoes to protect them from insects while others have raised fences to keep rabbits from eating their tender crops.
        Besides gardening, Union’s team has found another way to impact fellow community gardeners. Rodacker’s ESL teaching background prompted the group to offer a service unique to the College View garden—free English classes. On Sunday evenings at 7 p.m., Rodacker and other volunteers gather around a picnic table in the garden and help their newfound friends practice conversational English.
        The fun and relaxed classes include simple songs, learning games, short stories and articles. Class members share their life stories and experiences, helping them learn to express themselves better and get to know their fellow gardeners on a deeper level. ESL students from Union use their developing English skills to help beginners learn vocabulary and sentence structure. Rodacker is proud of the service her students provide and is glad they have the opportunity to help others learn.

        “Many ESL students feel they can’t speak English very well because they are new to the language,” Rodacker said. “It is a boost to them to use what they do know to help a person who is just beginning to learn English.”
        The individuals Rodacker works with need language skills to help them fit into the community. More than that, however, she understands their need for friendly human contact. “Even though some of the immigrants and refugees have been here for several years, they say they feel lonely and isolated,” she said. “This is just one way we can help them fit in, meet new people and become more confident.”
        Many of the gardeners have experienced the tragedies of war firsthand. While many will never visit with a professional counselor about their experiences, sharing them with a group helps relieve some of the pain and sadness.
        Hickmet, a refugee from Bosnia, works in his garden plot every chance he gets. A travel agent in Bosnia, Hickmet now works at a meat processing plant to provide for his wife, who is battling cancer, and his 14-year-old son.
        The plants in his garden aren’t as mature as those in other plots. In the early spring, when the other gardeners were planting their seeds, Hickmet was taking care of his wife, who was recovering from surgery. Now tomato plants with small green fruits take up half his plot. He loves tomatoes, but so do his neighbors. “I plant too many so I can share,” he said. “My friends and neighbors like tomatoes, so I planted some for them, too.”
        Whether sharing vegetables, planting tips or conversation, gardeners appreciate their new friendships. Hickmet and his friend Adam, whose garden plots are side by side, regularly attend the Sunday night classes. Both work long hours and have families to attend to, so time and money to spend learning English isn’t readily available. The free classes give them a chance to practice new language skills with experienced teachers from Union and other English language learners.
        After only two years in the United States, Hickmet sometimes struggles to come up with the right words. “I am so tired after work that I have no time to learn English,” he said. “I want to get a better job, but it is hard if I don’t know English. Coming here gives me a time to talk and learn.”
        Standing in his patch of onions across the plot marker, Adam agrees. He still has nightmares about the things he witnessed in Bosnia 11 years ago, and he is eager to share his experiences. “This is a good thing to talk and tell stories about my life in Bosnia,” he said.
        Among the tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, peppers and onions, Hickmet finds a refuge. “I love my garden because it is a place of relaxation,” he said. “I come here to find my peace.”
        Caring for the physical health of the immigrants and refugees is another service Union’s team helps provide. Rodacker’s sister, Kristi Clark, is a nurse. During a recent trip from California, she visited the garden site and offered free blood pressure checks. Rodacker says it was a good opportunity to encourage the immigrants and refugees to give up smoking and focus on their health, a positive correlation to eating their garden-fresh fruits and vegetables.
        Rodacker enjoys seeing different green-thumb techniques. Since the immigrants and refugees who work the plots come from climates different than Lincoln’s, their growing methods are varied. For example, says Rodacker, the Iraqi Kurds are accustomed to an arid climate and dig small wells near their plants to store excess water. While not all methods work as effectively as in their native countries, Rodacker says it is a learning experience to observe the gardeners’ traditional gardening methods and find what works best.
        The project is a true community effort. All materials, including seeds, plants and the land itself, were donated by community businesses and concerned individuals. Brian Hornby, husband of Union staff member Darla Hornby, volunteers by mowing the grass around the garden plot each week.
        One of the garden’s neighbors, Roger, shares his water hookup for irrigation. Rodacker says Roger stands up for the project, despite a few discriminatory comments from some of his neighbors. A Vietnam War veteran, Roger believes the immigrants and refugees came to America for a better life, and it is his duty to help them in any way he can.
        For lives filled with pain, sadness and war, the garden is a reprieve for refugees and immigrants. Working side-by-side, they are able to get to know others from different cultures and faiths, and many find solidarity while making friends. “ It is a place of peace,” Rodacker said. “There is no war and even more than that, this is a place where the people can thrive and grow.”