Gardens make "bad hombres" into good neighbors

Garden colony plot in Berlin
CC BY-SA 2.0 Sven

All this talk of "bad hombres" got you down? Here's an antidote.

As headlines focus on immigrant policies and demonize refugees, despairing any possibility of integration, we found a glimmer of hope in a news story reported by Die Welt/N24 (in German) on the strange new varieties of vegetables appearing in German community gardens.

A little background: community gardens are a way of life in Germany. Spending evenings and weekends in "small garden" colonies offers urban Germans an opportunity to grow fresh food and get out into nature.

There are over 800 of these colonies in Berlin alone, established along railroad tracks and on other underutilized public lands. It is typically not allowed to live on a garden plot as a primary residence, but the plots are leased for long periods and the rights of those who put effort into upkeep are rewarded with protections under the law.

Most garden communities feature small cabins on each plot amidst fruit trees and herb and vegetable gardens. The large number of rules regulating how a garden plot can be used serve as a microcosm of a society characterized by adherence to order.

According to Martin Rist of the Bavarian small garden association LBK (German), there are a higher percentage of immigrants leasing garden plots than in the overall populations of the cities where the gardens grow. Martin explains,

"they (refugees) have lost their homeland, and homeland expresses itself also in cultivation of fruits and vegetables."

As a consequence, Germans have garden neighbors growing more grape leaves and chilis for cooking dishes locals would call "exotic". Rist reports this has a neat effect, leading to the exchange of ideas between gardeners and serving as an important opportunity for integration. It's not the first time gardens have received credit for building community.

Surfing the web, one can find other traces of success. For example, a community "welcome team" promoting integration posts an ad from a German couple offering to share their garden experience with newcomers. An article "Mustafa: Syrian, refugee, gardener" (in German) highlights a garden colony leading the integration effort by giving people whose lives have been interrupted renewed purpose. Another tells the story of people coming "Out of war and into the garden" (in German).

A common underlying theme in the successes: established inhabitants reach out proactively to make their community gardens an inviting space for the newcomers.

No one is so naive as to think there are not people whose antisocial behavior badly harms others, criminals and psychopaths deserving of the full might and force of the justice system that underlies a society based on rule of law. But let's be honest, these people are the exceptions; most of the time we fear strangers not because they are actually dangerous but because our human brains are wired to fear that which is unknown or unusual from our point of view.

Reaching out to share our humanity, especially through our connection with the earth, can make friends out of strangers, turning those who suffer under prejudiced epithets like "bad hombres" into good neighbors.

Tags: Berlin | Community Gardens | Gardening

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