Stories: Hasta

Growing Success at Global Gardens

Planting the seeds for a brighter future

For many of us, growing tomatoes or squash is a simple, satisfying way to spend summer afternoons and feed our families. For Hasta Bhattarai, a refugee from Bhutan who was resettled by RefugeeOne in 2008, gardening is all that and more: it’s a way to live out a legacy that goes back generations. As a coordinator of the Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm, he uses his knowledge of farming to help build community among refugees in Chicago.

Bhutan, where Hasta was born, is a small country in the eastern Himalayas. Though it’s known for being the only country that measures Gross National Happiness alongside Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan isn’t always a sunny place—especially not for the Lhotshampa. Descended from Nepalese immigrants who arrived in Bhutan in the 19th century to work as farmers, the Lhotshampa (which means “southerners”) preserved Nepalese traditions even as they thought of themselves as citizens of Bhutan. But by the 1990s, the Bhutanese government had branded the Lhotshampa as illegal immigrants—despite the fact that their families had been working the same farms for generations—and targeted them for harassment, violence, and even deportation.

In 1992, after Hasta graduated high school, the government forced his family from their farm and out of the country. He and his parents, brother, and sister traveled to Nepal, where they settled in a camp alongside other refugees from Bhutan. There, separated from the country and work they had known all their lives, the family waited. Though the wait was punctuated by moments of happiness—Hasta met and married his wife Chandra in Nepal, for instance—it was hard to be in perpetual limbo without citizenship anywhere.

After sixteen years, Hasta and Chandra found out that they were to be permanently settled in Chicago, and better yet, that his parents and siblings would follow. They were greeted by RefugeeOne staff at O’Hare in August 2008, and taken to their new apartment. Soon after, RefugeeOne helped Hasta connect with his first job: working in a restaurant at O’Hare.

As Hasta and his family found their bearings in their new city, he wanted to give back to other refugees. In 2012, he had a chance to do just that when he became one of three leading volunteers at the Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm. The farm is located in Albany Park and holds about 100 forty-foot-long plots tended by refugees, who grow crops familiar and novel to feed their families and sell at a weekly market. The farm includes community garden plots for neighbors, too. Hasta and his fellow volunteers write grant proposals, tackle organizational issues, and get their hands dirty with the other farmers.

Hasta estimates he spends about 20 hours a week at the garden, where he grows bitter melon, broccoli, and snake gourd, among a host of other crops. (“I like all of them equally,” he says.) His plot is thriving—it’s difficult to believe that the long Chicago winter could have slowed the planting season when the garden looks this lush—and provides food for him, Chandra, and their two young sons. But the garden doesn’t just support his family in their present life in Chicago: it also connects them to their past in the Himalayas. “In Bhutan,” he emphasizes, “we were all farmers.”

Refugees from all over the world—and now, from all over the city—have plots at Global Gardens, too. Many of them were resettled by RefugeeOne. “We connect our clients to the garden, but not just as a food source. It helps them become part of the community,” says Helen Sweitzer, manager of adjustment at RefugeeOne.

When Hasta talks about what the farm means for others, it’s clear that it provides as much emotional as physical comfort to those who work there. “It’s not only a place to share fresh food, but a place to come together and share stories,” he explains. “The garden helps people practice English: they sell to buyers at the farmer’s market, and they talk to refugees from other places.” And cultural differences are seen as enriching: “We grow some of the same greens,” he says, “but we don’t all cook them the same way–so we learn from each other.”

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