In the last 10 months I have had the good fortune of doing community gardening work in several different contexts. I have worked in community gardens in a predominantly Ethiopian Israeli immigrant neighborhood, another one that is open to everybody in the town of Gedera, and one at an Ethiopian new-immigrant absorption center in Beer Sheva.
Each of the gardens are beautiful in their own way. In addition to producing food, the gardens serve as places for talking, laughing and learning. In the buildings in the Shapira neighborhood, the immigrants came from different regions of Ethiopia at different times, and some speak different languages from one another. The majority of the adults speak Amharic as their mother language, but some only know Tigrinya (a language spoken in northeastern Ethiopia). In addition, about 5% of the neighborhood is made up of non-Ethiopian Israelis from the former USSR, Morocco, Yemen and other places. Most of the Ethiopian immigrants in the neighborhood lived in villages in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, lacking running water and electricity. Some villages were only Jewish, while others were comprised Christians and/or Muslims as well. However, the people lived separately based on their religions. The villagers grew their own food, made their own clothing and homes, and the lifestyle moved at a slow pace.
Now in Gedera (and towns and cities all over Israel), the Ethiopian Israelis are living in buildings in an industrialized, fast moving country. The community gardens under the buildings provide adults an opportunity to grow their own food as well as flowers and plants for aesthetic purposes. In addition, they provide adults with opportunities to work together with their neighbors (Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian) and form relationships and teach their kids about gardening, connecting them with their heritage. The gardens also serve as a source of empowerment. Many adults in the neighborhood are unemployed or work low income jobs and the community garden provides them with the opportunity to work and bring food to their families.
Lastly, the building residents that want to have a community garden, need to contribute money for compost, plants, seeds and other materials. This is an important process, because it empowers residents to make their living spaces more beautiful by themselves, and not to wait for the municipality or others to do it for them. They take ownership. Friends by Nature has played an instrumental role in bringing community gardens to immigrant neighborhoods all over Israel. I have been very fortunate to work in two of these community gardens during my time here in Israel. I am grateful to talk to residents and sow different plants with kids from the neighborhoods, dig, break up soil, put up fences and just laugh with the volunteers.
I have been involved with the Gedera and Shapira neighborhood community gardens since I arrived in Israel in February of 2011. The Gedera Community Garden in particular was opened to the public in May 2011. I have worked side by side with Alex, the Head of the Community Garden project for Friends by Nature, throughout it all. The garden beautifies the area, brings people together of different ages, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, produces food, produces compost and provides people with the opportunity to have their own personal beds’ for growing whatever they choose. There are ten communal beds and every week the harvested produce is divided up between everyone that comes and works; many times we also cook these vegetable over the fire. We also make pitas from flour and water every session, cook them over the fire and eat them with different spreads, like hummus. The kids love this process and some come out to the garden just for this.
I have learned a great deal by watching and learning the sensitive process in which Alex goes about approaching the community and its members. The project has taken years to complete, but each community garden has its challenges and accomplishments. Although they all provide food, relieve stress and serve as a source of pride, there are also many challenges in starting something from the “ground up.”
It’s inspiring to have been a part of the process, and watching residents be empowered to take charge, and create a beautiful garden that they can be proud of. We have all experienced people working, sweating, talking and laughing together. We have all witnessed plants flowering, giving fruit and dying. Although we don’t necessarily speak the same language, I have come to realize that gardening is a truly universal language – a way of connecting with people not with words, but with hands, expressions, sighs and laughs. It has been an honor to witness the growth of these gardens and I am looking forward to seeing what else we can accomplish while I am here.