Phoenix garden helps refugees set down roots

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- For generations it has been the promise of America ... the streets are paved with gold. At one of the busiest intersections in Phoenix, it is not gold but green that is holding out the promise of a better life.

Salafa Chhetri said it is a place where past pains can be forgotten and a new future tended.

“You will find heaven here in the garden," she said. "That's what it is.“

A slice of heaven where green shoots sprout up in the shadow of skyscrapers at Central Avenue and Indian School Road. It is where you will find Chhetri and her husband, Tek. They are refugees from Bhutan who have made Phoenix their home for the last four years.

“I am from Bhutan," he said. "I became a refugee in the year 1991.”

They settled in Phoenix with the help of the International Rescue Committee.

"We're a resettlement agency so literally we pick up people from the airport that come through the United States' refugee program and we help them get a new life here," said Jon Vosper with the IRC.

While IRC helps with everything from housing to job training, it turns out gardens are often a place where refugees can really set down roots and flourish.

“I think the story of refugees coming into a huge city like Phoenix and growing food is a really wonderful story because these folks need an income, Phoenix needs more farmers to feed them, and it really is perfect timing for them,” Vosper said.

Program coordinator Timothy Olorunfemi said not only can it help refugees feel part of the community, it provides food and, more importantly, can plant the seeds of success.

“Our goal is to not only produce food, but to produce farmers who will eventually be responsible American farmers, paying taxes, hiring people,” Olorunfemi said.

That's something already playing out for those willing to dig in. Tek Chhetri said it will give them a chance to raise produce for income.

“It will open us a door to sell it in the farmers market,” he said.

Vosper said they have already seen success.

"We are seeing this farm program be a way for people to go from supplemental income to part-time income to full-time income and that's a really amazing thing that this garden can produce in the future for Phoenix,” Vosper said.

As part of their New Roots program, IRC has several gardens in the Valley, but this newest plot at Central Avenue and Indian School, provided by an agreement with the city and the Barron Collier Company, will be one of the largest.

Vosper said that means they can use help from volunteers as well, giving us all a chance to grow something more than just vegetables.

“People can get sweaty and dirty and they dig in this garden and they can pull food out and enjoy it at the end of the day, so it's a really amazing way to build community,“ he said.

About 80 families will eventually work this garden and they do need volunteers as well. For more information call 602-433-2440 or visit