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More Than Just a Garden

Refugees find community through
gardening, harvesting, and sharing recipes.

July 26, 2017

Iskashitaa is the Maay Maay word for “working cooperatively together,” and that is exactly what the organization does.

It was some of the refugees’ first Independence Day celebration. Children screamed in excitement and poured water over their faces to escape from the Tucson heat. Smoke rose from the grill as human chatter and distant car horns filled the air. Even though it was July 8, the celebration and excitement from the July 4th holiday lingered.

A young girl waits to fill her cup with water. The children splashed themselves with water trying to keep cool.

Saint Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church and Desert Courtyard Apartments collaborated with Iskashitaa Refugee Network to create an Independence Day-themed potluck and celebration.

Michael Rosenkrantz, the program and development manager at Iskashitaa Refugee Network, said that Desert Courtyard Apartments houses a large number of refugees, provides English as a second language classes, and has a community garden. “The refugees that are here are all future citizens, and so I think it’s important to help them understand the culture of the U.S. and especially July fourth,” Rosenkrantz explained.

People enjoy the Iskashitaa Fourth of July potluck held on July 8.

Iskashitaa founder Dr. Barbara Eiswerth realized that lots of food ends up in landfills, and that refugees need a community to practice English and help with job opportunities. Thus, Iskashitaa’s mission was born: the organization aims to help United Nations refugees integrate into Southern Arizona life while reducing food and water waste.

“Fourteen years later, we are harvesting annually between 100,000 and 130,000 pounds of edible tree fruit and produce that would otherwise be going to landfills,” Rosenkrantz said. The harvested food goes to local food banks and refugee families who harvest or need the produce.

Iskashitaa harvests whatever is in season. According to Rosenkrantz, they once harvested about 5,000 pounds of grapefruits in one day during citrus season. Locals can call Iskashitaa to harvest edible fruits in their backyards.

Nandi Neopaney shows us edible seeds from plants in the community garden.

Rosenkrantz said food helps bring refugees and community together by sharing recipes. “I think it’s really important for the refugees to really maintain the connection to the foods of their homelands,” he said, “and they bring that here and really teach us.”

Nandi Neopaney, a Bhutanese refugee, helps with the community garden at the Desert Courtyard Apartments. He is very proud of his gourds. Neopaney likes to make spicy foods, like curry, with the vegetables he gets from the garden. He had 20 acres of land in Bhutan where he grew wheat, corn, buckwheat, vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes and mustard. He used to make gallons of mustard from the seeds.

Nandi Neopaney poses for a portrait in front of his gourds. Neopaney is a Bhutanese refugee who works in his community garden with Iskashitaa.

Neopaney fled ethnic cleansing in Bhutan. He knew he had to leave after experiencing the violence firsthand. Soldiers came in the middle of the night, killing and abusing civilians. He claimed that over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese left the country to a refugee camp in Nepal, where he spent 18 years in the refugee camp living in a wooden shack. When he tried to return to Bhutan, the government wasn’t accepting people.

Nandi Neopaney shows us around the community garden. They plant and harvest their own fruit and vegetables.

Neopaney said his people need human rights. Although he didn’t want to leave Bhutan, he felt he had to in that situation. He said there are still 7,000 people in the Nepalese refugee camp he visited last year. He remembers planting a tree outside his home. When he went back to the spot outside of his wooden shack, he was surprised to see the tree towering above his head.

Nandi Neopaney’s house in the Nepal refugee camp he lived in for 18 years. (Courtesy of Nandi Neopaney)

Chandra Bhujel, 31, Bhutanese refugee, said he wants the public to understand refugees in this political climate. “Refugee people came here just to make a better life, not to destroy the country,” Bhujel said.

Iskashitaa recently restarted their food workshop programs to teach refugees how to work in a commercial kitchen and share recipes. During the most recent workshop, they made lemon curd and apple jam. They are also going to revive the “food for thought” program to bring congregants and refugees together with a potluck. Rosenkrantz said they help refugees whenever they can with food education, jobs, and forms.

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