Seeds of Peace
In South King County, Bhutanese refugees garden again for the first time since fleeing their homes, some two decades ago.
Story by Megan Hill
The Tukwila neighborhood is typical for South King County: There’s a public high school, a Jack in the Box, a Pizza Hut, a Walgreens, and a community swimming pool. The homes are modest, one- or two-story single family, with the occasional basketball hoop in the driveway and kids’ playsets in the backyard.
But hidden in this neighborhood is an unheralded partnership between Bhutanese refugees and the wider community, one that’s providing sanctuary in the tumult and a newfound sense of belonging.
Namaste Community Garden is a project of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit responding to humanitarian crises around the world. The New Roots program concentrates on food access and nutrition by helping refugees start their own garden projects. The Seattle chapter supports three community gardens: two in Tukwila, including Namaste, and one in Kent. There’s a fourth on the way, also in Kent. For the area’s Bhutanese refugees, Namaste Community Garden has become a central hub within the area’s New Roots program.
Though it’s supported by the IRC, Namaste’s seeds were planted by the gardeners themselves. Many of the founding members are ethnically Nepalese and speak Nepali, but are from Bhutan. In the 1990s, some 100,000 of these citizens fled or were forced out, as the Bhutanese government sensed a threat from this growing ethnic minority. Though they’d lived in Bhutan for generations, many were forced to surrender their land and move to densely-packed camps in Nepal, where they lived for some two decades. While most have resettled, about 18,000 refugees remain in the camps today.
There are currently some 2,000 Bhutanese refugees in Washington, many of them in greater Seattle. They’ve seen atrocities that include torture, destroyed homes, and family separation, amounting to what Amnesty International calls “one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world.”
For many, farming is a distant memory, a life they left behind decades ago when the government took possession of their land. Perhaps they were able to cultivate potted plants or small gardens in the camps or in their new U.S. homes, but nothing compared to what they had before Bhutan’s state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing.
In 2016, a handful of Bhutanese refugees in Tukwila approached St. Thomas Catholic Church to inquire about some unused land on the church’s property. Soon, fields of grass became garden plots dense with vegetables. Over time, the original footprint grew, doubling in size, twice. Today, there are 97 garden plots, each measuring 300 square feet.
“We try to prioritize people from any background where land access is an issue,” says Tyler George-Minetti, IRC’s New Roots program coordinator. “Working as a program of the IRC in Seattle, our first focus is on refugee and immigrant communities in South King County. But the gardens aren’t exclusive to those populations.”
“The Namaste garden site is where many refugee gardeners started growing food again for the first time since leaving Bhutan,” says Adrienne Ramm-Granberg, a senior development coordinator at IRC who has been involved with Namaste since its inception.
The gardeners plant a combination of vegetables commonly grown in the Pacific Northwest, alongside varieties they were accustomed to growing at home.
“One gardener, who is the father of my colleague, told me that when he found out they were going to be leaving the camp they had been in for nearly two decades, he sewed into his jacket lining some marigold seeds, a South Asian variety that look different than what we see here, that are important to Hindu culture and practice,” Tyler says. “That’s how important farming and a connection to the land is to that community.”
New Roots has secured donations from seed companies, including some from Asia. “It’s fascinating to watch what shows up in the garden,” Tyler says. “One of the most powerful things we’ve heard is that people are once again surrounded by the food they used to grow back at their own farms in Bhutan. It brings them back to their land and the place they lost.” Favorite vegetables include corn, beans, squash, mustard greens, and a type of cucumber called caihua, or stuffing cucumber.
There’s more to these projects than just gardening; Tyler also sees New Roots and Namaste as wellness programs, with a wider mission that highlights why community gardens like this are so successful that they often have long waiting lists.
“The New Roots program supports the gardens, but most of the credit is owed to the people growing food themselves, with amazing and productive and beautiful gardens,” he says. “We’re thinking of it as a wellness program as much as a food program.” For people struggling with the burden of leaving behind everything they’ve ever known, whose lives were upended overnight, the garden is a place of refuge. It’s a way to keep busy and keep the mind off of past trauma, to find reward in something tangible, and to connect with others who have had similar experiences. Many find healing power in the soil, especially adults who are out of work, Tyler says.
Without Namaste, the gardeners would have few — if any — other opportunities to raise plants. Most live in apartments without access to green space, and their communities don’t have shared garden space, such as the P-Patch Program, run by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. But while that program oversees 89 community gardens, there isn’t an equivalent outside of the city. Tyler estimates there are only around eight to 12 community gardens of any kind in South King County.
New Roots wants to empower the gardeners to further their skills, adjusting to urban growing and co-operative, small-scale agricultural versus growing on larger, subsistence-style farms — like they did in their home countries. Within two or three years of a garden opening, New Roots aims for it to become self-sufficient. “We’re a nonprofit, and things happen with funding,” Tyler says. “If we end up going away, we don’t want the garden to go away.”
In 2017, New Roots launched a “Micro-Producer Academy,” which trains the garden’s most ardent participants, teaching them about growing food for commercial use rather than just personal consumption. The program graduated 10 participants, who grew food for a seasonal farm stand in Tukwila and another in SeaTac — they were the only farm stands in either of those two communities.
“It was in large part a response to community feedback that a lot of refugee and immigrant families come from backgrounds where shopping at an outdoor market for fresh, seasonal food was the only way they bought food,” Tyler says. With those options otherwise limited, the New Roots farm stands were a perfect way to meet that need, while also furthering the gardeners’ skills.
The pilot farm stands were such a runaway hit that New Roots is in discussions about expanding them into full-fledged farmers markets, with multiple vendors. That would add to the diversity of products offered, and also allow patrons to pay with supplemental nutrition assistance programs like SNAP and WIC.
One farm stand interaction proved kismet. Two frequent shoppers, Rick Bidlack and Sheila Coppola, who live close to the St. Thomas garden, offered a large, unused swath of their backyard to the gardeners. The gardeners started preparing the site, which covers about 8,000 square feet, this past winter, and they’re breaking ground on it this April.
A small group of the New Roots program’s most dedicated gardeners will oversee this space, and they’ll dedicate it entirely to growing food for retail, rather than personal use. It will help supplement the expanding farm stand program.
“This group of gardeners has limited English, most of them are out of work, and they don’t drive,” Tyler says. “With this piece of land, the gardeners are truly integrating into their community. With older adults not speaking English, it’s harder for them to feel a part of the community outside of their Bhutanese cohort.”
Sheila and Rick echoed that sentiment — despite the language barrier. “We have a big, diverse community, but we often don’t know each other well,” Sheila says. She and Rick have made a personal commitment to their refugee neighbors, but the entire area seems supportive of Namaste. City officials often come to events, and a wide range of people shop at the farm stands and volunteer in the garden.
For IRC’s cultural liaison and interpreter Kamal Adhikari, the garden’s progress is deeply personal. Kamal, his mother, and older sisters fled Bhutan when the army arrested his father and imprisoned him without cause for five years. The family left behind an entire life — including a 20-acre farm — in Bhutan. They spent 20 years in refugee camps in Nepal before settling in Tukwila in 2011. Kamal’s father has regained a small piece of what he lost, in Namaste Community Garden.
“We treat soil as our mother,” Kamal says. “We are from the soil, and gardening connects us to our roots. We are blessed to live in this country.”