In San Diego, fertile ground for the seeds of understanding

Bilali Muya,a refugee from Somalia, digs into his plot of ground at the New Roots Community Farm in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. The garden opened in September and has become a haven for more than 80 immigrant and refugee farmers who now have a source of food -- and a connection to their homelands, their new country and one another.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

A slight breeze carried the scents of onion, cilantro and mint through the roadside garden.

At plot No. 17, Bob Ou picked up a well-worn can and watered rows of radishes and Asian lettuce. At plot No. 33, Bilali Muya crouched down to pull weeds from beds of carrots and sweet chard. He spotted a bright red tomato in a nearby plant, grabbed it and took a bite.

“Your tomatoes are so huge,” Ou said, warning that he might steal one when he walked by.

Muya laughed as he licked the juice off his fingers. “Don’t touch my tomatoes, buddy!”

The two men, who have come from two war-torn corners of the world to this piece of land, call each other brothers. Strangers when the land was still just dirt, Ou and Muya grew close as they fought for permission to open the community garden and help turn the barren soil into a thriving farm. The New Roots Community Farm opened in September and has become a haven for more than 80 immigrant and refugee farmers who now have a source of food and a connection to their homelands, their new country and one another.

The story of the friendship between Ou and Muya is like the garden itself -- slow to start, but once the seeds were planted, it was as if it had always been there. In some ways, the vegetables guided the way.

The garden was born out of conversations between a group of Somali Bantus and a refugee aid group, International Rescue Committee.

The refugees wanted to grow their own food. In America, budgets were tight and grocery stores overwhelming, so many of them abandoned fresh fruit and vegetables and instead ate fast food. The nonprofit staff, seeing high blood pressure and cholesterol among many refugees, wanted a way to encourage healthier eating and help clients put down roots in urban San Diego.

In 2006, the agency’s staff identified a location for the garden: a 2.3-acre vacant lot at 54th Street and Chollas Avenue in the City Heights neighborhood. They reached out to other immigrant groups, including the Cambodians, who had settled in large numbers in San Diego in the 1980s, said Amy Lint, a community development coordinator with the nonprofit. The land was owned by the city, so Lint had to get a lease and a permit, a process that would stretch out for more than two years.

During the process, Ou, from Cambodia, and Muya, from Somalia, raised funds, met with city officials and organized their communities. When they first saw each other at a meeting, Ou said he was curious about Muya but felt nervous about talking to him. Muya said he, too, was reluctant to get to know Ou but admired him for speaking up on behalf of his community.

Last spring, the nonprofit finally got access to the land. At the garden, Ou and Muya finally introduced themselves. Working side by side, the men helped build a fence and lay irrigation pipes. One day shortly thereafter, Ou noticed Muya and some other Somali men playing a dice game in a bamboo shade hut at the garden. He wandered over and asked about it. “This opened a conversation,” Muya said.

Over the next few months, the men began to open up at the garden. They talked about the violence in their homelands and the poverty of refugee camps, about adjustment to life in America and raising a family in a foreign place.

“Each day we talked, we got a little closer,” Ou said. “Our friendship got stronger.”

Muya added, “And the trust grew.”

Ou, 43, escaped the Khmer Rouge in 1979 after his aunt and uncle were killed. He and his parents fled to Thailand, where they lived in a guarded refugee camp without enough food. In 1985, the family left for the Philippines and then the U.S.

“Our lives were turned upside down,” Ou said. “It was like surviving death. It was another world for us.”

Soon after arriving in Louisiana, he joined the Navy and was transferred to a base in San Diego. Ou, who speaks with a Southern accent and calls himself a clown, fell in love with the area and stayed, getting a job as a machine shop operator. Soon he began a family and now has two sons.

Muya, born without a birth certificate, does not know his age. As a member of the ethnic minority, he and his family faced constant persecution from the dominant Somalis. Finally, Muya fled, walking for days before arriving in Kenya in 1992.

“I had to find somewhere with security, peace, food and shelter,” he said. He spent time in refugee camps and on the streets in Nairobi before finally coming to the U.S. as a refugee in 2003. Here, Muya joined the Urban Corps of San Diego County, which helps young people get education and job training. Now, he works part time for the International Rescue Committee, is married and has four children.

In June, Ou and Muya both thrust shovels into the ground, tilled the soil and planted their first seeds. Cooperation was critical. At the beginning, there were only two hoses. Muya said he was worried that there would be conflict among different ethnic groups. But with broken English, makeshift sign language and cooperation, the farmers made it work.

“Seeing these people integrating is amazing,” said Muya, who is quick to smile and switches with ease between English and his native Kizigua. “We all started to share like brothers and sisters.”

After the initial planting, the two men came to the site every day -- sometimes twice a day -- to see if the plants had sprouted.

Soon, they became curious about unfamiliar crops in each other’s plots. Ou gave Muya some Asian lettuce and Muya gave Ou some African beans. They shared recipes.

They encouraged others to do the same. “When me and Bilali became friends, everyone started talking,” Ou said. “People weren’t afraid of each other anymore.”

They became a source of support for each other. One afternoon, Ou noticed Muya pacing and mumbling to himself. Ou realized Muya felt overwhelmed by the piles of discarded weeds and crops, so he offered to help. . “It felt like I had a partner,” Muya said.

Through their conversations, Ou and Muya realized they shared the same struggles in the past -- and the same goals for the future. Not only do they want their children to live a better life, they also want the culture of their homelands to continue on. Farming was a big part of that.

“New Roots gave me the opportunity to show my children this is where I came from,” Muya said.

Now, Ou and Muya often spend afternoons gardening and chatting as their children play together nearby. Their numbers are on speed dial on each other’s phones.

Lint said she relies on both men to get the word out about coming events and to promote cooperation.

“Bilali and Bob are breaking down barriers,” Lint said. “This is the beginning . . . Through this garden, through these relationships, people start to see they have a lot in common.”

On a chain-link fence surrounding the garden, the wire is painted and bent into the words “New Roots Community Farm.” Colorful charms -- made from recycled cans and modeled after Somali tapestries -- hang like wind chimes above the words.

Inside, a wood-chip path meanders through the plots, marked with small hand-painted wooden posts bearing numbers and farmers’ last names: Chavez, Marroquin, Maw Ni, Haji, Anaya. Hoses are coiled around sticks and greenhouses and stalks of corn rise above rows of bok choy, basil, lemon grass, cabbage, amaranth and onions.

One warm Sunday afternoon this month, the area was teeming with gardeners. They had come together for a ceremony sponsored by a local group to honor organizations working to improve nutrition and health in City Heights. Presenter Jennifer Chandler said New Roots was “a vision long before it was a reality.”

“The people behind New Roots . . . were persistent in advocating for their right to grow their own food,” she said. “After receiving the permits, it took only a few short months to transform it into the oasis it is today.”

She called on the different ethnic groups, including the Cambodians and the Somalis. As Muya walked to the front to accept a certificate and pose for a picture, the loudest cheers and applause came from Ou. “You sit in the front, Mr. Leader. Smile!”

Both men said the farm has changed their lives. “This is a piece of homeland for me,” said Ou, who has had relatives send him seeds from Cambodia.

“My children used to say, ‘I need hamburgers and pizza,’ ” Muya said. “Now they say, ‘When can you go to the garden and pick some crops?’ ”

The farm hasn’t solved all of their problems, however. Muya still depends on public assistance and food stamps to help feed his wife and children. Ou has seen his hours cut at work, and some months he struggles to pay his bills.

Recognizing that many of the refugees cannot find work, Lint said she is trying to figure out a way for them to earn money selling crops at farmers markets and restaurants.

Just before Christmas, Ou and Muya went with Lint and other farmers to talk to Jay Porter, owner of The Linkery restaurant. Porter had bought 10 pounds of lemon grass from Ou’s wife the previous day and was offering it in a dish that night: Thai chicken and coconut soup with wild Mexican octopus, lemon grass, jalapeño, Thai basil and cilantro.

The group, from Burma, Mexico, Cambodia and Somalia, listened intently to Porter, though many spoke little or no English. Muya and Ou stood at the front and translated.

Porter explained that the restaurant buys all of its produce locally and that he wants vegetables that represent different cultures.

“We want people to experience what is meaningful about living in San Diego,” he said. “I know people really like eating food with a story.”

Ou invited Porter to come to the farm and sample the crops.

Porter accepted, saying: “The food you are growing is going to be amazing. . . . All we have to do is learn how to cook it.”

Later, back at the garden, Muya tasted some of Ou’s lettuce and said he wanted a homemade Cambodian salad for dinner. “What magic did you do to your garden?” Muya said.

Already, the farmers have held two potlucks at the farm, with each family bringing food prepared with vegetables from the garden. At the first one, Ou shared a vegetable stew and Muya cooked sambusas, or meat cakes.

“They say food is the universal language,” Ou said. “Now I believe it.”

As the sky darkened, Ou and Muya packed up and headed home, vegetables in hand.