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Refugees and Bowling Green Housing Authority Planting Seeds to Share Cultures and Good Food

Rhonda J. Miller

Spring is blossoming across Kentucky and refugees who have resettled in Bowling Green are planting seeds of vegetables common in their native countries.

A greenhouse is a welcoming place to  bring together people - and plants - from Asia, Africa and America.

The greenhouse at Bowling Green Housing Authority is vibrant with the shiny leaves of butterhead and romaine lettuce, and beans with bright magenta shells.

On a recent spring day, Angele Niyonzima was in the greenhouse planting seeds in small trays.

“It’s almost times to grow, so we come here to start getting ready,” she said. 

Niyonzima was raised in Burundi until she was 14. Then she was in a refugee camp for 10 years in the Central African Republic. She’s 38 years old, has lived in Bowling Green for 14 years, and works at Dart Container in Horse Cave.

Some of the seeds she’s been planting are common to both America and Africa, such as eggplant, pumpkin, some beans and sweet potato.

Niyonzima said there are more edible parts of the plants than are usually eaten in the U.S.

“Like sweet potato, we like that because we eat the leaves," said said. "And the pumpkin leaves. Pumpkin, we like the leaves.”

She said she can’t find those leaves in stores here and she likes to steam or sautethe fresh leaves or use them in a sauce. 

Credit Rhonda J. Miller
Steve Anderson, Farm Manager for the Bowling Green Housing Authority, manages the greenhouse.

Niyonzima coordinates planting with Bowling Green Housing Authority Farm Manager Steve Anderson. He points out one of his favorites - a showstopper - the magenta shell bean with an understated name. 

“They call it red bean. You see I’ve trellised one. They call it KuBaySae. It is a pea," said Anderson. "So, you see we have green ones and red ones.”

Those red beans are native to southeast Asia and are popular among the Karenni, one of the small ethnic groups located in Burma,” said Anderson.

Many of the specialty crops are planted and harvested by refugees for their families, with some also put on sale to the community. 

“Yes, we do sell it to bring money in," said Anderson. "Last year we raised 5,000 tabasco pepper plants and sold quite a bit of them.”

April Memeh is also in the greenhouse and she’s already planted one tray of tabasco seeds. Now she’s starting on a new tray of a different kind of spice. She said it's called 'Thai chili.'

“I like it better than tabasco," she said. "Tabasco is too hot."

April Memeh, left, and her sister, Sue Memeh, plant seeds at the Bowling Green Housing Authority greenhouse.

Memeh was born in Burma, but raised from the age of two in a refugee camp in Thailand. She’s 28 and has lived in Bowling Green for 10 years.

She said many plants common to southeast Asia are being grown in the greenhouse.

Watercress," said Memeh.

Anderson said he calls it Thai water spinach.

"I think you all call it spinach, but we call it watercress. You can eat it raw. You can make salad out of it or you can also cook as a soup,” said Memeh.

She points out other plants in the greenhouse that are frequently used in Asian cultures.

“Yes, we planted lemongrass over there,” she said.  

Memeh said she thinks it’s important to have these kinds of vegetables here, ones that are common in Thailand and other home countires of the refugees.

“Because we have a lot of community that eats this kind of food. And it grows pretty good here,"said Memeh. "So local food, but at the same time they get to enjoy the food that they used to eat, you know.”

Anderson said planting side-by-side with refugees is more than just a job for him.. 

He’s a registered nurse who had to give up that career after a back injury. 

“And someone just said, OK if money’s not an object, if you could do whatever you wanted to, what would you do? recalls Anderson. "And I felt my calling to serve refugees and connect people with real food, good food, so….”

So, Steve Anderson is cheerfully living that “calling.”  

He and the refugees will transplant the sprouts to the adjoining 40-acre farm in May. The vegetables common to Africa and Asia are now local crops.

The plants connect the Kentucky community and the refugees through a universal language of friendship - good, fresh, real food. 

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