It's a summer evening in Omaha, the sun is sloping toward the horizon, and a dozen Bhutanese refugees are poking around in the dirt.
One woman wearing a yellow shirt and bright green pants fills a watering can. Another stands on her tiptoes to smell a budding sunflower. A row over, Laura Weiss tries to explain to a few refugees why two pumpkins the size of her fist are no longer attached to the vine.
“They died,” the 25-year-old says. She lifts her arms, then lets her wrists go limp, closes her eyes and sticks out her tongue, hoping they can translate the gesture. “So I picked them for you.”
The women, who don't speak English, smile. Maybe because they don't understand what she said. Maybe they think her mime-work is amusing. Or maybe they're smiling because, when they're in the Root Down Community Garden, they're always smiling.
And that's why it exists: to make a handful of refugees feel happy and at home, and to connect them to their culture and each other.
There are 14 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world and more than 160,000 in the United States, according to the 2009 World Refugee Survey. Most refugees flee their native countries because they fear persecution.
Bhutanese refugees started settling in the U.S. in 2006 and in Nebraska in 2008. Of the 3,377 refugees who have arrived in Omaha since 2008, nearly 800 are from Bhutan, a country in Asia that is about one-fifth the size of Nebraska.
There, 70 percent of the population work in the soil. Here in Omaha, refugees — from Bhutan and all over the world — often work in meatpacking plants and as house cleaners.
“I love these refugees, and I see how difficult it can be to start off here. A lot of the opportunities they have are ...” Weiss pauses, carefully searching for the right phrase. “Not the most uplifting ways to make your money.
“The only real space for them is behind the scenes.”
Man Maya Gurung, 52, was displaced from her home in Bhutan in the early 1990s. She lived in a refugee camp in neighboring Nepal for 18 years before resettling in Nebraska in 2011. Her husband, son, two daughters, daughter-in-law and grandson are refugees living with her in Omaha.
She walks to the Root Down Community Garden, on the southwest corner of 32nd and Webster Streets, two to four days a week with the other gardeners, usually in the evening when the temperature starts to drop. It's one mile from her home.
Sometimes she picks a few weeds. Occasionally she moves a plant from a crowded portion of the plot to one with more space. Sometimes she just walks around the garden, looking for ripe produce, or catches up with the other gardeners.
Gurung — who wears three earrings, a necklace, a bracelet, three rings and a tiny gold stud in her nose — is growing sunflowers, tomatoes, pumpkins, cauliflower, eggplant, spinach and corn in her row.
“I feel like I am in my own country. We get to walk as a group and come here and have a little bit of fun,” she said with a translator.
She does not speak English, though she's learning. She is not employed, but, thanks to the garden, she has a job to do.
Older female refugees are the least likely to find work outside the home, the slowest to learn a new language, and the last to let go of their initial culture, according to Barbara Dilly, an anthropology professor at Creighton University. It's unusual for them, even uncomfortable, to live in a city where they spend most of the day inside.
“In their own culture, they weren't house-bound. They were involved in gardening. That was their employment. That was their economic contribution,” Dilly explains. “Even if we don't see it that way, that's a role for them. That's an identity.”
So it was no surprise when a handful of female refugees told Weiss, the one who started the Root Down Community Garden, that gardening is what they missed most.
Weiss is the employment and education coordinator at the Southern Sudan Community Association, an Omaha nonprofit that resettles refugees predominantly from Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. Though she works with refugees professionally, the community garden is her personal project.
The women's words were enough to propel her to action. She began applying for grants in January and received one from the Pollination Project — a group that gives away $1,000 a day to “individual changemakers” — in March.
She spent almost half of the grant on seeds, plants and basic gardening tools like watering cans. Benson Plant Rescue and Truck Farm Omaha donated to the project, too. But she still needed land and water.
Enter Dilly, the anthropology professor. She is in charge of the Creighton-owned land in the Gifford Park neighborhood that now houses Root Down. She offered it to Weiss and supplied water through the university, too.
The refugees planted their crop in May, and their first harvest was in July.
“You can see this happiness on their faces,” Dilly said of the refugees. “It isn't the same as gardening for the rest of us. ... It isn't just about the fulfillment of working in the soil or seeing plants grow that makes them happy — it's the sense of being productive in a way that validates who they are.”
Those who tend the garden do not make a living doing it. However, the coordinators involved with the project hope one day the refugees will grow enough to sell at a farmers market or start a small community-supported agriculture program, also known as a CSA.
They eat their crop instead. Cooking what they produce is part of their identity, Dilly said. It's also better for their bodies.
People in Bhutan eat primarily the rice, corn, greens and berries they grow and visit markets for the spices and foods they don't produce themselves. The standard American diet, on the other hand, is often riddled with sodium, preservatives and artificial ingredients.
Now that's also the diet of many refugees. Because most have low-income jobs, they cannot afford fresh produce.
The change in their diet is one of the greatest culture shocks they face, Dilly said. The professor sees the same shock in her students who study abroad. Those who eat like the locals — which typically means fewer packaged foods — get sick when they start eating processed foods again in the U.S., she explained. “That's what's going on with ... immigrants (here).”
At the Root Down plot, Weiss shares a row with a refugee. They're learning from each other.
Now she knows coffee grounds and crushed egg shells help fertilize the soil, and when you have only a few cornstalks instead of a cornfield, you have to pollinate each one by hand.
The refugees are learning to use the English words for what they grow, like “eggplant” instead of “baiguun.” They learned to use water more sparingly, too, so others could also water their plot. The concept of sharing a space and supplies is new to them.
“At home they had tons of land. Here they have a row,” Weiss explained.
The garden is about the size of a three-car garage, shared by a dozen people.
The growing season should last through October. They've already picked many of the greens. Squash, tomatoes, beans, peppers and okra are ready for harvest now.
One woman plucked a ripe tomato off the vine while the group collected its supplies on a Wednesday evening, done with the day's work. As the sun sank out of the sky, the refugees left the garden, feeling a little closer to home.