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Cross-cultural gardens bloom in Germany

11 Dec. 2011 12:38 AM IST

Fall is yielding its usual pumpkins, squash and wine grapes and the women stand side by side inspecting their harvest under a typically German sky of fluffy clouds. Each one has her own small piece of the nearly 11,000-square-foot plot. The apple and pear trees and black currant bushes are considered communal property.
The women – who decided to grow everything organically after holding extensive discussions about pesticides – try to garden together once or twice a week, in sessions that often begin with tea and cakes made according to traditional recipes. They also plan birthday and holiday observations and occasionally hold cooking groups in their own kitchens where they share the fruits of their labour.
Before they began to work this garden in Kassel the women – about 15 in all, from Morocco, Afghanistan, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia – were accomplished gardeners in their home countries. But learning to work the German soil, which has a very high mineral content, took time. A German biologist assisted with the initial planting and since then they have figured out how to cultivate a piece of their homeland here, coaxing Afghan mint, coriander and Iranian leeks from the local soil. In the process they share not only the flavours of their past but also the challenges of ongoing daily life. “The garden is a village where different cultures meet and come together to help one another with their problems,” says Sedika Baqaie, who gardens here and is from Afghanistan. “The garden has grown in importance to us over time. Without it, life would be rather boring.”
As Europe ages, countries such as Germany are increasingly relying on newcomers for economic and population growth. This is why projects such as the Kassel Garden – which won a 2004 prize for social integration by the Social Ministry of the federal state of Hesse – earn official favour for helping newcomers settle in.
Oufae Behoumi can attest to their benefit. The Moroccan-born 31-year-old moved to Germany with her husband in 1996, but the couple split up shortly after their daughter was born. She was adrift at first, but found a new family in the people who tended the garden, where she spends all of her free time. “Without the beauty of the garden I could not survive,” says Behoumi, who now works as a nurse. “When working on my piece of land, I forget what has happened and feel at ease.”
Some gardens, however, have weathered adversity. In August 2006 the extreme right-wing NPD Party distributed flyers near a garden in the eastern district of Berlin that warned the project would promote noise, violence and robbery. The group also staged protests. The garden is now under police protection. At a garden in Cologne the gates surrounding the garden have been destroyed three times and the sign that said ‘Intercultural Garden’ had to be removed because of constant vandalism.
The roots of the intercultural gardens go back to 1995 and a group of Bosnian women in a refugee centre for people fleeing the Balkan war in the eastern German city of Goettingen. Women there reminisced with their German social workers about their gardens back home, often longing for the orchards of Bosnia’s Drina River Valley, famous for its plums and apples. So the refugee centre, along with other foreigners in the area, decided to rent a garden plot.
When it began to flourish Tassew Shimeles, a 44-year-old Ethiopian-German agro-economist, decided to expand the idea. As part of what was then a loosely linked intercultural garden association, he applied and won expansion funds from the European Union.
In 1997, a second intercultural garden was created and in 1998 a legally recognised organisation was formed to govern their efforts. They began cooperating with a large German foundation in Munich in 1999 and were able to acquire additional funding for more gardens to broaden the initiative. Now the country hosts 100 intercultural gardens, with Kassel having the distinction of being the only one managed entirely by women. This arose from the women’s discussions with German social workers in Kassel about their intense longing for their gardens back home. Many of these women had lost all of their possessions. Most of the gardens are now coordinated by the Munich-based foundation Stiftung Interkultur. Created in 2003, it provides plots of land acquired from the government or donations where members can grow fruits, vegetables and herbs, often from their native countries.
The gardens are based on the traditional German ‘Kleingarten’, or small garden, championed in the mid-19th century by German physician Daniel Schreber, who studied the effects of urban living and industrialisation on children’s health and prescribed fresh air and exercise in these gardens.
These gardens were later credited with helping to save city residents from starvation after World War II and have remained a German pastime. Most Kleingartens have been in families for generations and it can be difficult to find an open one. The meticulously cultivated plots are strictly governed with rules that regulate everything from tree height to the proportion of vegetables grown.
The classic Kleingartens are enclosed. The plots within the intercultural gardens, by contrast, are separated only by strips of grass, allowing for communities to form. Gardeners exchange seeds sent to them by family in their home countries. Each member contributes a small annual fee of no more than $70 that pays for the plot, gardening tools and water costs. Gardening equipment is often donated by German nurseries.
Similar gardens are now being created in Austria, France, Holland and Great Britain. The intercultural gardens have also developed relationships with similar community garden projects in New York, Seattle and Toronto, where they have played a role in urban revitalisation.
By arrangement with Women’s eNews.

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Angela Boskovitch