A UMich student founded a migrant haven to help refugees

While many students at the University of Michigan often become activists in opposition to the local community, LSA senior Pemmason Kim Owens takes a different approach to student activism. To help immigrants living in Washtenaw County, Owens created a community garden in December 2021 in partnership with Matthias Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum and Jewish Family Services of Ann Arbor.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Owens said the project was inspired by her experience as a refugee in the 1980s when her family was unable to find the ingredients needed for traditional foods in their native Laos.

“Globalization was not a thing in the ’80s,” Owens says. The prettiest (you’ll) probably (find) in the grocery store was cilantro. Now you go to the grocery store, you see dragon fruit, you see mango, you see all kinds of herbs. Those were not common or sold at local grocery stores (in the 80’s).

Although international ingredients are more easily accessible now than in the 1980s, transportation and language barriers remain, Owens said.

“When you’re an immigrant, you don’t know the English language,” Owens said. “You have to have a driver’s license, all that good stuff. These issues have not really changed as far as access to transportation and food for the migrant community.

After graduation, Owens said she plans to further her activism by pursuing a master’s degree in the university’s school of social work with a focus on immigrant communities. While she is currently focused on improving food security to ensure that refugees’ basic needs are met, Owens said she plans to focus on more complex issues in the future.

“If we want to talk about other social issues, let’s look at the basics first,” Owens said. “My thinking was, ‘If I can bring everyone to the table, eat food and talk about food, then we can talk about other social issues together.’

Owens said she approached Jewish Family Services, an organization that works to resettle immigrants arriving in the Ann Arbor area, to collaborate on the community garden plan. Owens said she was at Mathieu Botanic Garden when she learned that many of the grants required applicants to have land for their projects.

Jeremy Mogtader, program manager for the UM Campus Farm, told the Daily that after hearing Owens’ proposal in 2021, he consulted with Anthony Kolenik, director of the Matthias Botanical Garden, before securing a four-year contract for the 21,000 square feet. Land for refugee gardens. Mogtader said the influx of Afghan refugees in Michigan before the winter of 2022 creates an urgency to start the project before the growing season.

“There were a number of Afghan refugees who were coming to the United States on an emergency basis,” Moghtader said. “The question was: Can we get this garden up and running quickly enough to help people get their hands on the soil and experience piloting in the last year?”

Ivana López-Espinosa, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager at Mathieu Botanical Gardens (MBG), spoke to The Daily about the way MBG management provides extensive logistical support to Jewish Family Services and the Immigrant Garden.

“When we have availability, we check with MBG and staff to determine what openings are available and when they will be open,” Lopez-Espinosa said. “(We’re) thinking about budget and … time and capacity … I can support or help with the logistics and arrangements needed to get the event up and running when you need it.

After establishing an on-campus farm, Owens Jewish Family Services recently received a three-year, $100,000 grant from the Immigrant Agricultural Partnership Project to support the garden.

Owens said the grant will help address challenges similar to those the garden faced during the experimental summer, such as a lack of volunteers, equipment and supplies.

“We were fortunate that Campus Farm donated the leftovers from the plant sale,” Owens said. We were able to have tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, things like that to start the garden right away. Then we had a problem with volunteers, because this was so new, so new (and) we didn’t have the manpower to help.”

Mogtader said the grant will allow Jewish Family Services and Immigrant Garden to provide a variety of services to immigrant clients, including selling produce from their on-campus farm.

“(Participants) will grow food for their own consumption and will have the opportunity (to sell the produce),” Mogtader said. “JFS has market stalls at some of the farmers’ markets…some of their customers were selling handicrafts or things of that nature. So we’re offering the site – what they do with their product is their choice.

In addition to increasing food security in the immigrant community, Owens hopes the garden will lead to other initiatives in the future to improve the physical and mental well-being of immigrants, and she encouraged members of the Ann Arbor and UM community to get involved.

“We want to fight for more than gardening,” Owens said. “We also want to look at mental health, therapy, art and entrepreneurship. There are so many components to this program here…it takes a village to make anything, so the more hands the better.”

Mogtader said he looks forward to working with JFS for the remaining three years of their land contract. He said that Campus Farm will continue to assess the need for the space and provide logistical support to the refugee garden.

“Our role is to collaborate with[Migrant Gardens]provide physical space and provide some technical support on the agricultural side,” Moghtader said. “Also to make sure there is infrastructure there like water and other things needed to grow plants.”

López-Espinosa Mati Botanic Gardens is working to organize logistics for next summer, their first summer working with grant money.

“A lot of what’s going on right now is developing internal structures to figure out which worker supports different aspects of the garden,” López-Espinosa said. “So making sure we’re meeting with our staff this season to make sure we identify who can help, support and come in and what the calendar might be.”

Lopez-Espinosa predicted their partnership with Immigrant Paradise will look different this summer, thanks in large part to a stronger relationship with JFS and improved project organization.

“I believe we’re going to start a customer cluster model, so there will be different groups operating through the agricultural program,” Lopez-Espinosa said. “We’ll have eight weeks for customers to go through. It’s great that at the end of those eight weeks … the customers feel empowered to use the space, to come back and continue harvesting and harvesting all season long.”

Mogtader said the campus farm’s relationship with Owens and JFS fits well with the Matt Botanic Garden’s strategic plan.

The strategic plan states that the mission of Mati Botanic Gardens is to promote partnerships that increase sustainable practices in the natural environment. In the year In a letter released in 2021, Kolenick expanded the mission by better incorporating the local priorities and activities of indigenous communities in the Ann Arbor area and defining goals using the university’s sustainability goals.

“The MBGNA is committed to achieving equity and justice and will continue to count on itself and the history of living collectives to do so,” the letter read. “This strategic plan is our roadmap for how commitment will turn into action; how MBGNA will continue to examine and combat complicity in systemic injustice; and how we will forge new paths for historically underserved communities in the coming years.”

Owens says she won’t be involved with the project until she enters graduate school, but believes she has started an important conversation about the importance of food access in immigrant communities.

After leaving Immigrant Paradise, Owens said she started another non-profit organization with the goal of alleviating the feeling of aging on the UM campus.

“I’m trying to get a sense of aging here at the University of Michigan,” Owens said. “I am a big, non-traditional student and I ask that my education be fair and that I deserve an education like everyone else.”

Owens said that once she attends graduate school, she wants to address issues facing immigrant communities through a policy lens, and is working to include discussions around legislative changes.

“I firmly believe that the best people to make a difference are the people who will be affected by the change,” Owens said. “So if you’re going to make policies for immigrants, you have to include your constituents. You have to include the stakeholders, you have to include the refugees and ‘what’s in it for you?’ Because they are living it,” he said.

You can find Daily Staff reporter Joshua Nicholson at joshuni@umich.edu.

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