For children of refugees fleeing adverse conditions in their countries of origin, so many elements of daily life in Wisconsin are radically different from everything they have ever known – from the language spoken at school to the kinds of food grown in American soil.Two children pick strawberries in the Pan-African Community Association garden at Blessed Savior Church, Milwaukee, Sept. 22. The children will sell their goods at a farmers market this weekend. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Milwaukee’s Pan-African Community Association (PACA) has found a unique way to help bridge this cultural gap: by founding a community garden, maintained by refugee children, on the south campus of Blessed Savior Parish on North 64th Street.

“Being in the garden is kind of a nice escape,” said Michael Grochowski, PACA’s education program director. “It just kind of changes the conversation – we’re all talking about food and things growing, and you see life kind of coming up. It can be a really positive space for a refugee who’s getting used to life in the country here.”

The youth of PACA will be selling the fruits – and vegetables – of their labor at a harvest-themed farmers market Saturday, Sept. 27 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the garden site, 4059 N. 64th St. Customers can choose from pre-picked and pick-your-own fresh and organic produce sold by the children themselves, who are using this as an opportunity to improve their language, math and customer service skills.

The garden was started last year when Grochowski observed an unused fenced-in space on the grounds of Blessed Savior’s south campus, where PACA leases office space. Community partners Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and Congregation Shir Hadash chipped in to buy supplies, and the University of Wisconsin-Extension donated plants and taught the kids the finer points of gardening.

The project also involved volunteers from the Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University and local high schools.

A child shows off some of the tomatoes, raspberries and strawberries grown in the garden this summer. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

The children were members of PACA’s summer program and range in age from 5 to 25. Gardening was a skill set many of the youth possessed.

“We actually heard that other refugee agencies were doing this because there tends to be a lot of agricultural background in refugees,” said Grochowski. “We’ve seen quite a few young people and parents who were very excited about this project because they were able to share some of their knowledge and skills.”

Hermela Yusief, 12, who came to the United States with her family from Eritrea in 2010, had no gardening experience and liked that the project allowed her to new develop skills. 

“I get to grow vegetables, fruits and stuff. I never knew how to dig a hole about an inch – they taught me how to grow fruit, how many days to water it and stuff,” she said.

Her brother Mulubhran, 9, said his favorite part about the garden was catching insects – but it also introduced him to gardening techniques. 

“I learned that volcanic rock, when they make it squishy, holds the water and makes the flower grow,” he said, referring to the process of using lava rock as mulch.

The garden also helps to reinforce an awareness of nutrition and healthy eating. Many times refugees will come from a background of healthy eating, said Grochowski, but “it’s cheaper to eat poorly here, unfortunately.” 

UW-Extension also offered the kids instruction on the nutritional content and health benefits of the foods grown in the garden. Excess food from the garden that cannot be sold at the farmer’s market is sent home with the children. 

All proceeds from the farmers’ market will be used to take the youth on a field trip of their choosing. 

PACA has leased office space from Blessed Savior Parish since 2011, and the church “has definitely been a partner of ours through the years,” said Grochowski. Parishioners have been involved with donating items to PACA families, providing skills training and helping to furnish houses for new families. Nathan Gala, 7, left to right, Fthawi Hailu, 10, and Mulubrham Yosief, 9, pick raspberries in the Pan-African Community Association garden at Blessed Savior Church, Milwaukee, Sept. 22. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Although PACA was founded in 1999 at All Saints Church on North 25th Street, the organization is not currently affiliated with any religious institution. Grochowski emphasizes this project represents an interfaith effort. 

“Knowing the importance of faith to our families, we welcome all faiths and refer them to people who share their faith in Milwaukee, so that they may hold onto and strengthen their faith as they adjust to life in the country,” he said.

PACA estimates there are between 10,000 and 12,000 Africans living in Milwaukee, with around 1,000 of those being refugees. Catholics account for approximately 10 to 15 percent of the refugee population, mostly from Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. PACA also works with Iraqi and Burmese refugees.

“These are people who are fleeing very difficult lives and who are survivors,” said Grochowski. And for their children, who have already endured so much, the garden at Blessed Savior Parish represents something uncomplicated and familiar.

“The garden is just one idea that we thought would build from something that they had a positive connection with,” said Grochowski. “It’s definitely been a success for us so far.”