Refugees and immigrants grow homeland foods at Kent community garden

The project participants have de-paved upwards of 17,000 square feet to make room for the urban garden. (Photo by Elizabeth Loudon)

Where asphalt once covered a parking lot at Hillside Church in Kent, plots rise for a new community garden.

The garden will soon yield Jordanian potatoes, kabocha squash, Serrano chili peppers, and holy basil. The gardens and the produce will be for immigrants and refugees from as diverse parts of the world as Bangladesh,  Burma, Iraq, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Palestine and Ukraine.

Hillside Paradise Parking Plots will serve immigrants and refugees from fourteen different countries who will be able to grow food that might be hard to find at local supermarkets. It’s a project headed by World Relief Seattle, in partnership with local urban farming advocacy groups.

Razegul Oraikhail’s family plans to grow cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes for a traditional Afghan salad that includes cilantro and onions.

Oraikhail came to the Puget Sound on a special immigrant visa reserved for interpreters for the US military. When the military moves on, interpreters and their families are in danger, said Tahmina Martelly, programs manager at World Relief Seattle.

Oraikhail said Hillside Church made his family feel welcome to the gardens.

“This is a good place for me. My children can come here. They can work with me. My wife can come here,” he said.

The name for the garden was inspired by lyrics in the Joni Mitchell folk song, “Big Yellow Taxi,”they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” In this case, Hillside Church’s neglected parking lot is being “de-paved,” so that immigrants and refugees can lay down garden beds for their own piece of paradise.

Martelly, one of the drivers of this garden revolution, said the project engages people in the fundamentals of conservation and sustainability and it will also serve as an ongoing education and science lab for school districts.

High school students Ghislain Bugingo and Zeytun Ahmed will work with middle school students. The two have been part of the project since the beginning. Bugingo, who is from the Congo, is a part of the youth group at Hillside Church. World Relief helped his family resettle in the area five years ago.

Ahmed, whose parents came from Ethiopia and Somalia, said on-site irrigation trenches and cisterns address a changing climate and increasing patterns of summer drought. With layers of green infrastructure, the community garden will also keep storm water on site.

“Climate change and global warming are a big thing these days,” Ahmed said. She  added “pollution from stormwater happens to be a big problem in the Puget Sound and this is where we live. So it’s very local for us.”

The project symbolizes the fact that “change is not coming. Change is here. We are change. The things that we’re enacting here are just the beginning,” Ahmed said.

Initial seed money for the community garden came from the King Conservation District who promote sustainable use of natural resources and are always ready to welcome new farmers.

The conservation district kicked off the project with demonstration gardens which gave the community a way to participate in a small portion of what eventually would become a larger project. After that, said Melissa Tatro of the conservation district, the community and agencies behind the garden were able to leverage the opportunity into more funding.

“That’s what’s happened here,” she said. “It’s been a multiplier effect of people wanting to get involved: Stone Soup Gardens, Construction for Change, Plumbers Without Borders, King County.”

At a recent “de-pave paradise” work party, asphalt was broken apart piece by piece, irrigation trenches dug and cisterns installed. With on-site irrigation, the garden will be self-sustaining.

Jake Harris with Stone Soup Gardens, the company that designed and installed the irrigation system, inspected groundwork for an upper parking lot trench and asked volunteers to dig it two feet deeper.

A trench in the lower parking lot will pump water uphill to a 4,000 gallon cistern which will be the source for the irrigation, he said.

The system will serve an estimated 90 percent of the water needs for Paradise Parking Plots throughout the year.

“This is going to be the channel for the irrigation for the upper area,” he said.

The irrigation system will make the garden self sustainable and benefits local salmon populations as well. (Photo by Elizabeth Loudon)

The county’s Waterworks Council also provided funding for green infrastructure to reduce stormwater pollution to local waterways and reduce flooding during heavy rains. Water collected during the rainy season season could be as much as 96,000 gallons.

Salmon could also benefit from the project.

At one end of Hillside Paradise Plots Community Garden is a tiny stream that eventually leads to a salmon-bearing stream.

“There’s a plan to daylight it and open up the asphalt and make more of a natural space for the water because it runs like that even in the dry season,” said Tatro.

The irrigation system and rainwater catchment will be one of the largest in the greater Puget Sound, Harris said. The combination community garden and rain garden are a first for Kent.

Kent’s Office of Economic Development didn’t quite know what to make of the project when it was initially proposed, Harris said.

“Most people come into the office wanting to pave over farmland and we’re doing the opposite,” Harris said. “We’re de-paving and putting in farms.”

Martelly hopes the project paves the way for future community gardens.

“There’s enormous opportunity for growth,” Martelly said. “Sometimes you have to get all the hard things out of the way so new things can grow and that’s kind of like starting a new life.”

“It’s like a puzzle,” she said, “once you get one piece the others fall into place.”

Opening ceremonies for Hillside Paradise Plots Community Garden are scheduled for May 9. For information go to the Hillside Paradise Parking Plots Facebook page.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, World Relief Seattle was misidentified on first reference. It is now been corrected.