For Lamya Ali, gardening is a refuge.
“It is therapeutic for me,” she says. “It relieves stress; it is very relaxing and calming. I don’t know if that’s in my roots because my grandparents were farmers.”
During the growing season, you’ll often find her near 18th and F Streets in Lincoln, tending a plot in a community garden operated by Community Crops, a nonprofit that empowers people to grow their own food.
Lamya enjoys growing tomatoes, bell peppers, okra, eggplant and herbs. She also likes to “plant some seeds from back home.”
Back home is Iraq. Lamya is a refugee. She and her family fled the war-torn country in the early 1980s when she was a child, resettling in a couple of Middle Eastern refugee camps before arriving in Lincoln in 1999. Surrounded by uncertainty growing up, gardening brought a sense of peace.
“When we left the country, they placed us near farms and villages, and we had a big garden. We planted all kinds of vegetables and herbs and lived off them because, financially, my family lost everything,” she recalls. “I wanted to have a garden in my life again.”
An avid cook with an affinity for Indian cuisine, Lamya uses her produce in recipes and shares the surplus with her sisters and mother. Supplementing her stock is as easy as visiting the Community Crops Veggie Van, a mobile farmers market supported, in part, by a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska Fearless Grant.
With its goal of preventing food insecurity and increasing wellness, the Veggie Van sets up each week at Health 360, a clinic in central Lincoln that serves low-income families.
“I was so happy when they started the Veggie Van,” Lamya says. “It helps people – the newcomers – who usually look for vegetables and fruits and food that is similar to the country they came from. Everything here is organic and natural. Their prices are very reasonable, and they take SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cards.”
Founded in 2003, Community Crops also oversees a training farm (that helps supply the Veggie Van) and cooking classes. What once was a lone community garden has grown to 12, which collectively yield 40,000 pounds of fresh produce each year.
“Community gardens are unique in that they are not a handout. Our gardeners appreciate the opportunity to grow food for themselves and to make a difference in their own lives, improving their health and learning new skills at the same time,” says Ben McShane-Jewell, executive director of Community Crops.
Not only is Lamya growing her own food through Community Crops, she is helping to grow the organization. An interpreter for Lutheran Family Services, she is quick to tell her clients about the community gardens and the Veggie Van.
“Some tell me they like gardening and they used to have a garden back home. I tell them there are gardens in the city that you can apply for and if you cannot afford paying the yearly fee, they will reduce that for you. I tell them how to get the application and even help them fill it out.”
McShane-Jewell says, “The most effective outreach for us is when someone like Lamya can go to their community and share their positive experience with Community Crops. Not only do we tend to get additional committed participants, but it confirms that that person was deeply impacted.”
Lamya went back to Iraq in 2005 to reconnect with her roots. She returned to Lincoln six months later. She has found her place there – close to the earth.
“When you plant a seed and you water it, when the crop comes, it’s a lot of joy.”
“Faces of Fearless” is a storytelling series in Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska’s “Live Fearless” campaign celebrating people living their very best lives and inspiring others to do the same.