‘Growing Home Garden’ unites cultures

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“Namaste,” Adam Forbes said often Tuesday afternoon, offering the Sanskrit term for “I bow to you” to ethnic Nepalese as they entered the “Growing Home Garden” on the 700 block of Emily Street.

The salutation’s figurative warmth matched the sun’s literal version as Forbes, a garden manager and community organizer for Center City’s Nationalities Service Center, continued his presence among the eager planters, all Bhutanese refugees, or Lhotshampa. Their five-lot garden, featuring 72 beds, has offered stability over the last three months, easing the acclimatization to the United States for them and the Burmese exiles who assist them.

Residing on Third to 12th streets from Snyder to Oregon avenues, the 70 families that manage the plots comprise one-tenth of South Philadelphia’s Nepalese and Burmese clans. Though the Burmese hold the majority, only their fellow Asians accompanied Forbes in the horticultural haven. Having lived in Nepal for six months, Forbes easily fraternized with the tenders, using a mix of their language and English in their three-hour gathering.

“I have an extremely positive, always evolving relationship with them,” Forbes, a Southwest Philly resident, said of his role as the workers’ main American contact.

He has that designation through the efforts of the center, the U.S. federal government and the International Organization for Migration. A 90-year-old nonprofit, the center aims to help individuals to participate fully in American society by offering educational, interpretation, legal, senior and translation services to about 4,000 souls from more than 90 countries annually.

The federal government corresponds with the IOM to make resettlement decisions based on foreigners’ homeland situations, analyzing conflicts, wars and the states of refugee camps. The Nepalese and Burmese, all victims of violence and torture, consult the center for help, but the garden serves as their therapeutic thrill.

“Many of the people are battling depression, so being able to give the women and the elders a place to hang out was the impetus for starting the garden,” Forbes said.

“This brings us together,” Dil Maya Kaflay said of how her more than 100 relatives use the land to strengthen solidarity.

The resident of the 900 block of Cantrell Street has spent two years in South Philadelphia, which is the average for her fellow Bhutanese refugees. The Burmese have resided here longer, Forbes said, with many amassing six years. With an agricultural lineage, Kaflay enjoys planting flowers, beans, cauliflower and bitter melon, a favorite among her people.

Many newcomers brought seeds from their native lands, but they do not need to rely only on themselves to nourish their bodies and beautify the area. Supplies come via the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest Growers Alliance initiative, and donations, fundraisers and grants contribute to their livelihood.

“We could use more money, but the only negative I see is having to tell families we do not have enough garden space to accommodate them,” Forbes said.

He views the tract as “a stepping stone” for forging additional community support through movie screenings, storytelling sessions and the distribution of a recipe book.

“Many families come every day,” he said of their help in making the project a symbol of irrepressible will. “Being here gives them a communal boost.”

Harrowing histories mark the lives of most of the local Burmese and Nepalese contingents, with some members having spent as many as 14 years in refugee camps. Burma, Southeast Asia’s second largest country geographically, boasts a population of about 56 million. Its wretched human rights record has resulted in its receiving the world’s second worst score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Civil strife dominates, as the country’s ethnic diversity breeds cultural squabbles. Thousands of refugees reside along the country’s border with Thailand, but Philadelphia has assisted the Karen and Chin minorities that constitute the garden’s Burmese contributors.

“They are very shy and will often do their work in silence, not taking a break or an offered drink,” Forbes said, adding that the Nepalese population’s outgoing nature keeps the groups from being highly interactive.

A landlocked state in South Asia, Bhutan has roughly 700,000 residents. Two decades ago, the Lhotshampa, whose name translates as “southerners” in Dzongkha, the country’s national language, represented nearly half of the population.

Speaking Nepali and following Hinduism, they represented diversity within the relatively small country. The Bhutanese government, looking to have only one language and one culture revolving around Buddhism, began to evict the Nepalese, deeming them illegal aliens. As of January, the U.N. Human Rights Council had secured living quarters for nearly 35,000 of the Nepalese, who have needed to deal with the pain of having had their previous homes destroyed.

Men and children joined the ladies nearly halfway through the congregation. Employment occupies most of the men, and the youngsters pick up education at numerous local schools.

“Many men help,” Devi Chamlagai, of the 2300 block of South Marshall Street said as he picked up a packet of bitter gourd seeds.

He came to South Philadelphia Feb. 2 and began a job Tuesday night. Excited to be experiencing a new life, he swapped smiles with the children.

Narayan Adhikari and his sister Divya arrived after completing their day at Francis Scott Key School, 2230 S. Eighth St., where they improve impressive language skills.

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“I like to water the plants,” second-grader Narayan said.

“I like the potatoes,” third-grader Divya added.

Shrijan Kamar explored every crevice of the garden, showing off the typical enthusiasm of a 6-year-old. He is one of eight residents from three families inhabiting a home on the 700 block of McKean Street where his mother Bishnu Kamar, who has lived in South Philadelphia for a year, following three months in New Hampshire, balances her Nepalese identity with her exposure to American culture.

“I love the garden,” she said of planting carrots and lettuce. “I am looking forward to the summer and to seeing everything grow.”

To see more photos of Growing Home Garden, visit www.southphillyreview.com/multimedia.

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com or ext. 124.

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