TRIBLIVE —Rows of lettuce, spinach, beans and pepper seedlings fill several large wooden crates in a vacant parking lot behind the Whitehall Presbyterian Church.
The new garden is a pleasant reminder of home for the large population of refugees hailing from Bhutan and Myanmar now living in Whitehall and Baldwin boroughs who once resided in farming communities before ethnic cleansing forced them from their homes.
“Most of the people were in refugee camps for so many years. They’re homesick. Their families are everywhere. They’re sad,” said Januka Regmi, 32, of Baldwin Borough, a native of Bhutan who lived in a Nepali refugee camp for 19 years before coming to the United States in 2009. “If we have this opportunity for people to at least feel at home and at peace for a few hours, that’s great.”
Gardening is a favorite pastime of the refugees, many of whom have not been able to grow their own food since leaving their homeland several decades ago, Regmi said.
Bethel Park-based nonprofit South Hills Interfaith Movement opened the 6,600-square-foot garden, complete with a gathering space and children’s learning area, in May at the Whitehall site with funding and added support from Grow Pittsburgh and Giving2Grow. Grow Pittsburgh will help oversee the garden for two years. After that, SHIM will provide support.
Nearly 45 volunteers helped with the Whitehall garden, where produce was planted on May 28. The garden will be run by refugees living in Whitehall and Baldwin neighborhoods, with Regmi serving as the Whitehall garden manager. Half of the produce from the garden will be used for SHIM’s three food pantries. The other half will be harvested by those who care for the site.
This is SHIM’s 13th garden. Last year, the nonprofit’s gardens grew more than 11,000 pounds of fresh produce.
SHIM held several meetings with residents, mostly refugees in the Whitehall Place (formerly Prospect Park) housing complex, seeking their input on the garden, said community garden manager Becky Henninger.
They wanted to grow pineapples, bananas and peppers. The garden became a learning experience for the refugees, who were taught about frost and what can grow in their new environment, she said.
The refugees were enthusiastic about the new garden, Henninger said.
“They missed it,” Regmi said. “When they heard about it, they were so excited.”
Whitehall has had a large population of refugees dating to the 1990s. The latest U.S. Census showed that 13.4 percent of Whitehall’s 13,139 residents older than age 5 speak a language other than English at home, nearly 3 percent higher than the state average. About 9.2 percent of residents speak an Indo-European language at home.
The latest influx to the region are natives of Bhutan, who lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for many years.
In recent years, the refugees have migrated to neighboring South Hills municipalities.
About 7.3 percent of Baldwin Borough’s 18,701 residents older than age 5 speak a language other than English at home, U.S. Census data shows.
The refugees prefer fresh foods, as they often didn’t have canned foods in their homelands, Regmi said.
“They love carrots, beans, spinach and peppers, lots of peppers,” she said.
Marigolds and other natural bug repellents were planted around the site.
Holy basil, recommended by Regmi, will be planted because it keeps the bugs away. It also will be used for a celebration during the harvest.
As they planned for the garden, Henninger said, she was learning from the refugees just as much as she was teaching.
“This gives them a sense of ownership, I think,” she said.