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Roots in the community

• Gardens get credit for bringing residents together, decreasing crime

Angela Martin never had a chance to do much gardening.

The opportunity wasn't there for the 31-year-old single mom, and neither was the space.

Now she's growing mustard greens and onions and fava beans, digging out weeds with her neighbors and putting fresh vegetables on the table for her three young kids Ñ with their help.

'My kids didn't know anything about gardening,' Martin says. 'They never had the opportunity. They've learned a whole lot since we started up the gardens.'

Three communal gardens have sprouted up at the St. Johns Woods Apartments during the last two years, and they are winning praise for bringing the local community closer together while contributing to a drop in violence and vandalism.

Jennifer Sauer, manager of the 124-unit public housing complex, calls the gardens 'a safe place where people can get together on neutral ground and get to know each other. People feel secure there, whereas they may not have gone out of their apartments much before.'

Sauer says she's noticed a big drop in property crimes at the apartment complex. 'These same kids that had been giving me trouble before the gardens came have become the most involved in the project,' she says. 'They love the gardens, and they protect them.'

The low-income residents of St. Johns Woods designed and planted the three 2,500-square-foot community gardens. One garden is for adults, one is for kids and the third is for the elderly, who get help with the heavy work from the apartment's adolescents.

The adolescents hope to start selling their extra produce this summer at a weekly farmers market in the South Park Blocks.

The project is funded through a $125,000 food security grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal is to increase food security and economic opportunities for low-income people, explains program supervisor Tera Couchman of the Portland-based nonprofit Janus Youth Programs Inc.

But the impact of the gardens goes beyond those goals, Couchman says.

'These gardens get people together,' she says. 'They break down racial and cultural tensions. And they help low-income people to be self-sufficient.

'The difference between picking up your emergency food box and growing your own produce can be the difference between shame and pride.'

Connection to the land

With its ample rain, bright summers and overall green ethic, Portland can be a Mecca for gardening. But that doesn't always hold true in low-income dwellings, where people tend to have less access to good soil.

Couchman says that being isolated from the earth and its bounty can be particularly hard on the many political refugees who come from agrarian cultures to resettle in Portland's public housing projects.

Shole Abuna knows that feeling. Abuna says one of the things he missed most, after his journey from a Kenyan refugee camp to Portland, was his roots.

Abuna grew up in Ethiopia, a member of that nation's largely disempowered Oromo ethnic majority. Like many African refugees who end up in urban America, Abuna felt isolated from his heritage here.

He has adapted in Portland, mastering English, finding a hotel job and enrolling in community college classes. But the transition has not been easy, and Abuna says that for those older than him, it can be impossible.

'America is good for young people,' Abuna says. 'For the elders (who come as refugees) it's no good. They aren't used to the family not being together. They aren't used to not being able to plant their own gardens. They don't speak English. They don't want to stay here, but they can't leave.'

Those elders can gain a lot from community gardens such as the ones at St. Johns Woods, Abuna says. So can the apartment's youths, who struggle with their own form of isolation.

Abuna volunteers frequently at the gardens, serving as a mentor to teenagers at St. Johns Woods. This summer he plans to build a traditional African hut near the gardens, to shelter the gardeners from the sun and rain.

Back to the garden

Daniel Van Lehman, a Portland State University assistant professor who used to run a refugee camp in Kenya, recently toured the gardens, and he liked what he saw.

'These gardens are small, but they do a lot,' Van Lehman says. 'They get people out into the community, get them mixing with their neighbors, get them speaking English. They're not just trapped in front of their TVs.'

Van Lehman is working with Omar Eno of York University in Toronto to set up a program at PSU to assist a new population of African refugees soon to arrive in Portland, the Somali Bantus. The U.S. government has agreed to accept 12,000 Bantus starting this summer. The refugees will be coming to a number of cities, including Portland.

Like the Oromo in Ethiopia, the Somali Bantus are an ethnic group that never received full rights in their African countries. And like the Oromo, the Bantus come from a long line of farmers.

Van Lehman says he would like to replicate the community gardens at St. Johns Woods for the coming Bantu refugees Ñ but on a much larger scale. He's scouting out potential plots of land both inside and outside the city limits.

'You can see why these communal gardens are so attractive,' he says. 'So often refugees find themselves on the receiving end of services. They'd much rather be on the production end.'

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..