In total darkness, Phimmasone Kym Owens floated across the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand, her 2-year-old body buoyed only by a makeshift boat fashioned from a tire. At her side was her mother, who carried Owens’s baby brother on her back.
It was 1980, and the only country Owens had ever known had become unsafe for her family. Her step-father feared that the new Communist regime in Laos—a country already ravaged by a failed, secret CIA war—would send him to a reeducation camp, where many were tortured and killed.
“We lost everything,” she recalls.
After a year of harsh living conditions in Thai refugee camps, the family went to a processing station in the Philippines, then on a plane to California. Eventually, they landed in Chicago in the dead of winter in January 1981.
The cold air felt like a punch; until then, Owens had only known heat, humidity, and monsoons. But blizzards? Never. She soon realized another shock to her system that was just as jarring as the icy winds of a Midwestern winter: the food.
Accustomed to mangoes, fresh fish, spicy food, herbs, and rice, Owens was now faced with school lunches and government supplemental food that offered the utterly baffling Cream of Wheat, white bread, ketchup that was classified as a vegetable, and dairy—lots of dairy. Owens was lactose intolerant at a time when nut and oat milks did not yet populate grocery store shelves, and she often spent the entire school day hungry.
“Coming to the United States, you want to feel some piece of home. A home-cooked meal is what brings you memories of your home,” says Owens. She didn’t have that as a child, but as an adult, she decided to make sure others could experience that link with their homelands.
The Refugee Farm is Born
Fast forward—way forward—to 2021. Owens was a sophomore at LSA, where she was working toward her Bachelor in General Studies degree, when she realized she could make life better for new refugees.
“We all know that food is a basic need, a basic right,” she says. “How do we make refugees feel welcome? My solution was to have a refugee garden.”
She founded the nonprofit Refugee Garden Initiatives to provide culturally appropriate foods for refugees. The garden was planted at Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and it became her senior capstone project in the LSA Honors Program. She also won a social innovation award from the organization U-M optiMize to help with funding, in addition to support from Jewish Family Services Ann Arbor.
“My mission statement is: empowering refugees through food, support, and storytelling,” she says.
At the garden, refugees from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and others planted okra, Malabar spinach, cassava, amaranth, and much more.
Many refugees have told Owens that the garden is a vital lifeline to their native culture. It gives them some agency and autonomy at a time when so much in their lives feels out of their control. That’s why many of them began to call the plot “The Freedom Garden.”
“It’s more than a garden,” Owens says.
The Future: Gardens and Growth
Owens plans to pursue her Master of Social Work degree beginning next year. In the meantime, she is focusing on starting a holistic farm program to benefit single refugee mothers.
“This is made possible through the mentorship of local farmers and U-M professors, collaboration of other community gardens and nonprofits, refugee agencies, and the support from the local community and donors,” she says.
Owens is in the process of acquiring land through a City of Ann Arbor program and building a base of funding. “My hope,” she says, “is that the clients will be given the opportunity to be an active participant in their community, including civic duties and advocacy to help change refugee policies. By being representatives who have the lived experience as a refugee, they are more equipped to make real change in the decisionmaking and policy process.
“If done in numbers, the refugee population can demand more resources and support.”
Learn more about Refugee Garden Initiatives.