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Whitehall Place garden enables refugees to connect with others

| Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Rows of leafy tomato, broccoli and cabbage plants line the fresh mounds of dirt piled high inside the raised garden beds located just in front of an apartment building at the Whitehall Place complex.

The sun is angled just right at this location, and the slope is OK, so the vegetables should be ready to harvest within a few months, planters said.

The volunteers from the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, or GPLC, and Whitehall Public Library have done their part: organizing, planting and teaching the Bhutanese and Burmese natives about the garden. Now, it's up to the refugees living in the Whitehall Place apartment complex to do their part: watering, weeding and taking care of the “Roots in America” garden, which will provide a lesson and pleasure, along with sustainable nutrients for the refugees.

“The garden is all theirs,” said Many Ly, program service manager for GPLC, who taught a gardening class to 21 refugees living in the complex that will oversee upkeep and cultivation of the garden, planted in front of the GPLC office in Whitehall Place, formerly known as Prospect Park.

Whitehall has had a large presence of refugees, dating back to the 1990s, coming mostly from Bhutan and Myanmar, formerly Burma, with others moving here from Burundi, Sudan, Turkey, Bosnia, Russia and Iraq.

The latest U.S. Census showed that 13 percent of Whitehall's nearly 14,000 residents speak a foreign language at home.

Many of the refugees come from an “agrarian, agricultural background” where they farmed for a living, said library director Paula Kelly, who teaches English-as-second-language classes in the complex where many of the refugees reside.

GPLC and library leaders have talked about constructing a garden for the refugees for a long time, but grants for such projects were on too large of a scale for what they wanted to do, Kelly said.

“We knew that we weren't ready to go big, so we decided to go small,” Kelly said. “We really wanted to see this happen in 2014.”

With the approval of Whitehall Place management and the use of funding provided to GPLC through a state grant for family literacy, the project moved forward.

Beth Kocsis, family literacy coordinator for GPLC, named the garden “Roots in America.”

“They have roots in their home country, and we want them to feel like they have roots here,” she said. “They do have roots. Their family is here now.”

Kocsis had her father, Den, construct wooden boxes to hold the plants. Becky Carpenter, director of special projects for GPLC, the “master gardener” for the project, handled the planting needs.

Kocsis and Ly asked the refugees during their English classes what types of plants they would want to see in a garden. The most popular included green beans, chili peppers and okra, or “lady fingers” as some of them called the tubular vegetable.

Nar Timsina, 53, a native of Bhutan who moved to Whitehall two years ago after spending three years in Seattle, said she wanted pumpkins in the garden. That's what she planted in her native country and cooked for meals.

The 21 refugees will be divided up in groups of three, and each group will have a set day to tend the garden.

How they water it, when they water, when they pick the vegetables — that's all up to them, Ly said. They need to work together to determine that.

Ly attempted to explain communicating to a class of students from different nationalities. It became hard, and she stopped.

One student, on her own, got the idea to ask her “garden friends” for their phone numbers, and the other classmates followed suit, Ly said.

This allowed them to practice their English and learn new words for the garden, while doing something they love, the organizers said.

“We knew that this would be something that they would be proud to take ownership of, it would improve their living space, get them outdoors. It involves physical exercise. There were just so many positive components to the project,” Kelly said.

When the vegetables are ready for harvesting, they will be donated to the South Hills Interfaith Ministries food pantry.

“It's not enough garden space to provide a harvest that will feed these community members, but we thought it would be a wonderful lesson in civics and paying it forward to take whatever the garden produces and donate it to the food pantry. That way they're sharing it with all the members of the community,” Kelly said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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