VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
In a Kansas garden, roots of a new life
September 23, 2013 by Jordan Helton
|Kefah and her husband Mustafa fled Iraq after ongoing violence made it too dangerous for them to live there. Upon arriving in the U.S., one of the biggest surprises for them was the high price of food. To cut costs, they planted a garden, starting with their favorite vegetable: okra. They also grow mint, which they brew into a flavorful tea. Photo: Jacque Waite/IRC|
Just inside the brick wall of an apartment complex in Wichita, Kansas, a small garden—only a few feet wide—teems with bell peppers, tomatoes, mint, cantaloupe and okra. The garden’s natural bounty is a perfect match for the generous spirit of its caretaker, Iraqi refugee Kefah Ramadan.
“The first thing I learned about gardening is that mint will grow back very fast and thick once you cut it,” says Kefah. “The second thing I learned is that the more mint I cut, the more hot tea I can drink with friends. It is a good feeling.”
For Kefah, the garden not only provides sustenance, it brings her closer to her new neighbors, and to the rituals of daily life she cherished before she was forced to flee her homeland.
“The things we loved to eat in Iraq, now we get to share them with friends,” Kefah says. “We give food from my garden to my neighbors and we give it to other refugees—it’s a great thing.” Particular favorites are her okra casserole, cantaloupe juice and, of course, mint tea.
“We put mint in our tea in Iraq, so it makes me happy to hear my neighbors say they think it’s delicious, too,” Kefah says.
|In Wichita, Kefah and Mustafa continue the Iraqi tradition of sharing sharing mint tea with visitors. "The more mint I cut, the more hot tea I can drink with friends," Kefah says. "It is a good feeling.”|
Photo: Jacque Waite/IRC
Surprisingly, it wasn’t a love of gardening that first inspired Kefah to grow her own fresh fruit and vegetables. Shortly after she arrived in the United States in April 2012, she began to miss the foods and flavors of home. But she had trouble finding the ingredients she wanted at affordable prices.
“At the beginning in the U.S., everything was so different from our country and the food was very expensive,” she says. “There are too many choices in the stores here.”
Then, after a neighbor suggested she start a garden, Kefah filled her basket with seeds, rather than food, on her next trip to the grocery store.
“She started by growing just for her own family, and then it turned into sharing with other refugees who she met through the IRC and with whoever needed it,” says Emily Daggett, the IRC’s community orientation and assessment specialist in Wichita. “Whether it’s Americans or other refugees, she’s happy to help anybody.”
One of Kefah’s favorite things about gardening is sharing her homegrown produce with her neighbors. Here, friends and fellow refugees Hind, Ahmed and Noor join Kefah, Mustafa and their son Mohammed at their home for a meal featuring Kefah's okra casserole.
Photo: Jacque Waite/IRC
Daggett calls Kefah the matriarch of her neighborhood because of her willingness to help other newly arrived refugees still adjusting to life in the U.S. Kefah and her family—her husband and six-year-old son help tend the garden—were some of the first refugees resettled by the IRC in Wichita, and Daggett says their determination to live a full and healthy life is an inspiration.
So what started out as a spot to grow her family’s favorite foods now has the feel of a community garden, where all are welcome to help themselves.
“The more we are able to grow, the healthier we eat and the more we can share,” says Kefah. “If you need something, come here and my family will share with yours.”
Get Kefah's recipe for okra casserole.
The International Rescue Committee is helping resettled refugees to reconnect with the land, celebrate their heritage and nourish themselves and their neighbors by planting strong roots—literally—in their communities. Explore New Roots.>>