Omaha is home to thousands of refugees from South Sudan, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Burundi, the Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, among others. Laura Weiss, an Omaha native and volunteer ESL teacher, was moved by her students’ stories of the lives they left behind, and the lives they dream of here. One common thread emerged: many said they missed gardening and farming. So, with borrowed land and a small grant from a foundation, Laura started the Root Down Community Garden on the Southwest corner of 32nd and Webster, just west of the Creighton University campus, giving these recent arrivals a way to literally and figuratively put down roots in Omaha by growing organic vegetables and herbs. That’s me above with Laura and some of the many refugees she works with at the Root Down Community Garden. The Country Gardens crew—including photographer Jacob Fox—was there a few weeks ago to produce a story for the early Spring 2015 issue.
While Laura originally intended the garden to encourage her students to pursue a favorite hobby, and give them a taste of home, she also realized that the economic hardships they endure restrict their access to nourishing fresh foods. Ultimately she hopes gardeners, who are primarily women from Bhutan and Sudan, will be able to sell some produce at summer farmers’ markets or teach cooking classes representing their traditional cuisines. In the meantime, the gardeners are getting to know each other – and their new community – better. “This project is bigger than Omaha, bigger than the individual people, and bigger than simply the beauty of a community garden,” said Laura. “This project will change the lives of people who have struggled and suffered for far too long. Refugees arrive in the United States and immediately enter the poverty level. With these economic dynamics, access to nourishing foods is extremely restricted. Root Down promotes compassion, community health, self-sustainability, and cultural understanding.” You can see we found a new green thumb and green-hearted friend of Country Gardens!