Refugees and immigrants who move to our country are eager to gather and connect with others from their native lands and with those in similar circumstances. They often do not speak English, which makes it difficult to find critical resources like access to jobs, education and health services.
Kara Gebre is the Lead ESL Instructor teaching English classes for adults at the local Crowder College in the small town of Noel, Missouri. As a teacher of English, she recognized firsthand the necessity of a central source of support for refugees and immigrants. Incoming immigrant residents represent more than ten different ethnicities and languages, including Latino, Pacific Islanders, Somalian, Sudanese and Karen (formerly “Burmese”), among others.
Kara founded the Refugee and Immigrant Services & Education (RAISE), a non-profit service that helps people when life can prove to be worlds apart from what is familiar. New immigrants find that customary traditions and needs become a major challenge when everything is presented in an unknown language. Locating employment, education for non-English speaking children and sufficient health services can seem insurmountable. Community becomes extremely important in these circumstances, as well. RAISE is an organization established with the intention to bridge those gaps, especially for immigrants who arrive here as refugees.
A Growing Population
Immigrant workers in Noel send for other family members as they can afford it, although many of these folks were formerly settled in other regions and have gathered here in second and third migrations. Interestingly, the Karen community actually arrived here as a group. The ethnic communities tend to grow rapidly. Kara notes that most of the migrant families are intact, even though they may be temporarily separated from one another.
Settlers in Noel share information in their own language with those back home, communicating online about their American-based communities and about available jobs and opportunities. Noel’s largest industry is a poultry processing ranch that employs many of the area’s immigrants.
Community Gardening and Events
A community garden seems perfect for an organization that vigorously promotes community among groups of people who are vastly different from one another. Located across the street from low income tenant housing, a 3-lot portion of land was offered by the local housing authority as garden space.
The University of Missouri’s extension service helps in the plan and design of the garden, which now produces pumpkins, watermelons, berries, tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, bell peppers, jalapenos and okra. Kara mentions that it isn’t easy to find good fresh okra, and it’s a favorite of the Somalian culture. In addition to produce, the garden has four fruit trees and an herb garden. The local housing authority has provided a space for cooking classes. A master gardener and nutritionist assist with garden logistics and food prep.
Noel’s immigrant groups of varying nationalities often cook outdoors and have “eat-togethers,” grilling and cooking the fruits of their labor side by side. One harvest festival activity involves each group forming an adult team with a leader to prepare a meal in their familiar traditions. RAISE funds the meat for the meals, and the immigrants prepare their recipes in their own, sometimes fascinating, manner. One example Kara notes is the Sudanese folks preparing their meat with an ax on a tree stump. These team activities place them in leadership and teaching positions, and benefit the entire community. Respect for one another, bringing down barriers and creating a broader sense of acceptance are natural outcomes of these events, and fulfill the purpose upon which RAISE is founded.
Harvest season classes for kids are currently in the discussion stages, but the immigrants’ children do participate with watering and weeding when they aren’t in school. They don’t use chemicals and mushroom compost is the chosen fertilizer.
One youth group that includes quite a few “Karen” kids held an event in which they made stuffed peppers together. Younger children have games and ways to occupy themselves nearby while parents work in the garden raising homegrown food to sustain their families. However, Kara notes that when children dominate their parents’ attention, the parents don’t focus on adult to adult communication, which is key to establishing connections among the differing groups. So, it’s important to keep the smaller children busy.
Most of Noel’s immigrant kids are studying hard to adapt to life in the U.S. The town’s local schools support the extensive learning needs of child immigrants. Here’s a fascinating quote from a local public radio publication:
“If you want to know what America is, come sit in front of the feed store and watch people go by in a turban, in an island skirt and in their overalls, and they’re all just going to work,” said Angie Brewer, who is principal of Noel Elementary. The school sits beside the railroad tracks just a short walk from Main Street. About 11 languages – from Swahili to Penglopese – are spoken among the school’s 400 or so students in third through eighth grades.
Gardening Know How is so pleased to have contributed to a garden shed for storing supplies and tools. RAISE volunteers were hauling the implements to and from their homes every day, and now have a place to store them onsite. We thank people like Kara Gebre, who have the vision and compassion to understand how gardening heals and connects us as humans and blurs the boundaries among races and nationalities.
If you are inspired by this remarkable project, feel free to donate here: www.raisecommunity.org/donate
Every year, Gardening Know How awards $1,000 to 20 different, hand-picked garden projects across the United States and Canada. If your community or school garden has a growing, unmet need for more soil, seeds, fertilizers, building materials, or even just help getting the word out about your program, we’re ready and willing to help you meet those needs. As community gardens and school gardening programs spring up all over, we’re happy to do our part to help.