by Tahmina Martelly
My country was changing identities when I was growing up. It went from being part of India to East and West Pakistan to becoming Bangladesh. I can tell you the night it became real. My grandparents and one of my aunts were visiting. I have two elder sisters and a younger brother. We were all laughing and eating dinner when suddenly our apartment shook as jets flew overhead, and we heard huge explosions as bombs began dropping. Some of our windows shattered and glass shards fell everywhere. Within minutes, life as we knew it had changed. War had started. The next few years brought huge changes in our lives. We moved to Yemen, learned new languages and cultures, and, eventually, I moved to Idaho to live with an American family and attend NNU.
Being uprooted and displaced is challenging. It brings sorrow and loss and a feeling of being completely disconnected in a new place. Millions of refugees face this challenge globally each year. Out of over 70.8 million refugees in the world, less than 1 percent will ever be resettled in a new country. I have been working on programs that build resilience for the last 26 years. This work is important to me because it honors the capacity of the human spirit to overcome tremendous obstacles and still thrive.
Three and a half years ago, the parking lot at Hillside Church in Kent, Washington was just that—a parking lot. Today, the neglected one-acre of cracked asphalt, peppered with weeds and consistent flooding, has been replaced with a thriving community garden, home to 50 plots, cisterns and rain gardens. All of this was a result of listening to the refugee and immigrant community.
Kent is the 10th most diverse city in the United States. In my work at World Relief Seattle, a refugee resettlement and services organization, I began to ask community members what they wished and longed for. The answers were interesting. Women, primarily Afghan women—who were pre-literate in their own language—struggled with learning English. Many felt isolated and alone and requested sewing classes and places to gather with other women. Other families were being fined $250 by apartment complexes when their children were playing in the parking lot. Families wanted a safe place for their kids to play, to grow food they missed from home and to get their hands in soil because they were so disconnected from the land living in apartment buildings with no green space nearby.
Hillside Church, an international church of the Nazarene, is located right in the heart of town and on a six-acre parcel. This is where I attend church. The partnership seemed inevitable. The building sported a 30,000 square-foot roof and had additional classroom space in the basement that was being used for storage. Over the next three years, partnering with and using the amazing space available at Hillside Church, I learned how to put together a skills-based, English-as-a-second-language sewing program, working with amazing volunteers who helped shape and create an iterative sewing curriculum. This one-of-a-kind sewing program has successfully graduated 10 cohorts of women. Many of the graduates are now making masks from home as a source of income.
Then came the garden. By leveraging many partnerships and resources, we de-paved over 50,000 square feet of asphalt. We are providing 80 percent of the garden’s irrigation needs by capturing water from that enormous roof. We built five rain gardens that capture, filter and infiltrate 1.1 million gallons of polluted stormwater annually.
We are training cohorts of refugee and immigrant youth interns as Equity and Sustainability Ambassadors to reach the community on sustainability and conservation issues—that disproportionately affect communities of color—by leading tours, creating educational videos and teaching children and other young people. We have partnered with the local school district to use the garden for a field investigation site. Each year, over 450 seventh graders use the garden as a living classroom as part of their problem design lab science curriculum. This coming year we will build a sustainable food forest and a bioswale to mitigate flooding while providing year-round food to the community.
The Paradise Parking Plots Community Garden offers a chance for gardeners from 23 different countries to build community and to learn from each other. What was once a neglected space is now a premier green stormwater infrastructure site and a thriving community.
Food access, especially healthy food access, is often an issue in the best of times for families who find themselves in vulnerable positions. This fact has been very evident during the coronavirus pandemic. The need for immediate food assistance became clear by early March, and I was able to coordinate home delivery of food to 125 families in need who did not own vehicles and provide drive-through grocery access for over 1,000 families each week. The very same church parking lot that boasts a thriving community garden is now also a place—along with the church building— where thousands of families receive groceries, diapers, hygiene and laundry products to tide them over for one more week.
The transformation has been fast, yet timely. It’s been incredible to be part of this journey and to know that my skills and resources and experience can be used to change my community. I haven’t changed the world after leaving NNU, but I do get to influence and change for good my small corner of it.