Refugee garden project revamps vacant lot

By Kaley Fowler

Moving to a new country and adapting to a foreign culture can be incredibly difficult. For many Chicago refugees, however, the transition will become easier through a new community project.

The Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly, a program that helps refugees assimilate into U.S. culture and society, entered a three-year lease agreement with the city Feb. 15. CLESE will transform a vacant lot at 2954 W. Lawrence Ave. in the Albany Park neighborhood into an urban garden to be maintained by refugees so they can develop the skills necessary to pursue careers in farming.

“CLESE is providing training, financial literacy and other support for these refugees as they transition to life in the country,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a written statement. “In addition, beautifying vacant lots will attract residents and developers to the area and will create new business opportunities.”

According to Jim Farrell, spokesman for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, refugees and immigrants are not the same. While an immigrant is a person who moves to a different country, a refugee is one who has been forced to flee his or her home country out of fear for personal safety, he said.

“Most of [the refugees] are coming from countries with farming traditions that go back generations,” said Linda Seyler, spokeswoman for CLESE. “They know how to be efficient and productive, and they’re really hard-working.”

Seyler said as a way to involve refugees of all ages, not just the elderly, refugees ranging from ages 25–60 will be included in the project.

According to Seyler, CLESE and the City Council are still working to finalize the lease agreement, and planting will begin as soon as the plans are finalized.

At this point, the coalition has not yet decided what it will plant in the garden, but Seyler said there is a possibility they will harvest produce not typically found or grown in the Chicago area. She said bitter melon, daikon and roselle are being considered.

The produce will be sourced to local restaurants, according to Seyler, who said she is in the process of meeting with restaurant owners to decide where crops can

be distributed.

Seyler said CLESE hopes to see the garden flourish into a community park over time, but at this point funds are not available for that type of expansion.

However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement recently awarded the organization a grant to assist the refugees with farming endeavors.

“The creation of an urban garden will add beauty and opportunity to a great Chicago neighborhood,” said Karen Weigert, chief sustainability officer for the city. “We are delighted that the transformation of this space will give residents another reason to be proud of Albany Park.”

The city will lease the lot to CLESE for $1 per year until Dec. 31, 2015, at which point a lease renewal will be considered.