In the days before COVID, a group of St. Cloud women planted a vegetable garden. It was located on a plot of land near the apartment buildings many had called home since resettling in the central Minnesota city as refugees from Somalia. The fragrant, verdant place quickly became a popular gathering spot where groups of neighborhood women gathered on summer evenings to dig in the dirt, talk, laugh and drink tea.
Kahin Adam, a St. Cloud health equity leader, mental health advocate and public health practitioner, started stopping by the garden. As leader in the local Somali community and Bush Foundation fellow, he likes to go to places where people gather, listening to their stories and slipping in pointers about taking care of their mental health.
“I started having conversations with the women, just going to the garden, getting to know them,” Adam recalled. “It takes time to build trust, but after a while they welcomed me.” Once he’d established a relationship with the gardeners, most of whom are elders, Adam took a leap he’d taken many times before and began talking to them about their mental health. After some initial hesitation on the women’s part, the discussion flourished. “We were able to start a conversation about stress regulation,” he said.
The garden, located on city-owned land and rented to the women for a nominal fee, was as productive as it was popular. “It is really an amazing thing,” Adam said. “The women grow cilantro, kale, spinach, green peppers, onions, garlic, cucumbers.”
Then, the pandemic summer, when many of the nearby residents began to avoid gathering in groups, the garden became a shadow of its former self, Adam said. Things weren’t much better during the summer of 2021, he added: “During COVID I haven’t seen many of them outside at all.”
He was sad to see the garden so quiet, and he wondered how the gardeners were surviving.
“One of the things I wanted to know was how they have been doing during COVID, how did they survive, what sort of support systems they had.”
Then, earlier this summer, Adam drove by the garden, and he was happy to see that the women had returned. Loosened health restrictions combined with lower case counts and effective COVID treatments had drawn them back. “They were there again,” Adam said, “gardening, talking, having tea and eating snacks.”
Adam, ever the mental health advocate, had been concerned about these women. A refugee’s life is stressful enough, he said. Add to that the fear, illness and isolation caused by a global pandemic, and the lives of many of St. Cloud’s refugee community members were teetering on the edge.
“Many of the elders in our community are already living with isolation,” Adam said. “They are not connected to resources.” The garden had become an important escape for its neighbors, and Adam felt overjoyed and hopeful to see its return: “Many studies show that connecting with nature is a very important part of a senior’s life.”
The garden’s reboot included a number of new members who weren’t familiar with Adam and felt unsure about his motivation. After a few visits he was able to build back trust. Eventually the women told him that he was welcome to come talk to them about issues around mental health.
“I asked,” he recalled with a quiet chuckle, “‘Can I come back and help you guys?’ They said yes.”
Because he’s a big-picture thinker, Adam soon decided to expand the programming options he’d offer to the gardeners. He’s well connected in St. Cloud, so he began reaching out, asking local health and education experts if they would be interested in coming out to the garden and talking to the women.
One of his first calls was to Hani Jacobson, a St. Cloud-based nurse and community health advocate. Jacobson, who has worked with Adam on a number of projects in the city and at CentraCare, has extensive experience with refugee communities. She knew about the garden, and had even joined Adam there on a pre-pandemic visit.
The gardeners, Jacobson recalled, “gathered and talked about things that are important to them, like their relatives back home and current events in Somalia or Kenya.” On their earlier visits, Jacobson said that she and Adam helped to “facilitate the conversation and make it a little more organized.”
In her work as a nurse, Jacobson often makes a point of including questions about mental health topics during regular physical exams. She wants her patients to see that mental and physical health are interconnected.
In a world that is slowly moving away from the pandemic’s more acute phase, she believes, “Our focus should be on mental health. It is so huge right now. It always has been huge but it’s a lot more needed these days with all the isolation and things that have been happening.”
For many of the people who live near the garden, life can be isolating, Jacobson said. Winters are particularly hard for those who lack transportation. With summer’s warm air and long days comes a feeling of freedom. The reinvigorated garden is the perfect place for people to come together and rebuild their community.
“A lot of the Somali refugee seniors and single moms usually don’t leave the house during the winter,” Jacobson said. “These months where they can be out in the evening every night are important to them. At the garden, you’ll see people going for walks. This gives them opportunities to socialize with other people in the community.”
Jacobson hasn’t visited the garden yet this summer, but she hopes to stop by soon. Adam has asked her to talk to the women about chronic disease and how they can access health care. “I’m super-excited to be able to visit and see how I can help,” Jacobson said.
Adam has also recruited Fajir Amin, a St. Cloud resident and graduate student in education at Johns Hopkins University, to come and talk to the gardeners about food, spirituality and nutrition.
Amin, who was born in Washington, D.C., and has lived and worked in cities around the world, has a strong belief in the connection between food and the spirit. “I got into food and spirituality when I started baking,” Amin said. “I did it for a spiritual reason. I needed to uplift myself and my family at the time.”
She sees a clear connection between gardening, preparing food for our loved ones and mental health. As a Muslim, she also sees that these simple acts can be spiritual. “For some people, spirituality can be found in the walls of a mosque or a church or a temple. It can also be found in a forest or a garden or on the banks of a river or even while you are cooking for your family.”
When she meets with the gardeners’ group later this summer, Amin said she will talk about self-actualization and the positive emotional growth that can come from creating something to share with others.
“I’m going to be tying in nutrition, food, gardening and how even something as simple as observing a seed grow into a fruit can be inspiring.”
Amin said she understands why it took time for Adam to gain the trust of the gardeners and plans to put her message in words that will resonate with their worldview. “We are going to be making Koranic references to food and plants, talking about food mentioned in the Koran, like honey and bananas and dates and figs and olives. We’re going to be weaving that spirituality and the nutrition part together.”
The last time Adam stopped by the garden, he was amazed at how much it had grown. The ground was thick with staked tomato plants and the warm air smelled of fresh herbs. He couldn’t help associate the overabundance of produce with some kind of hope.
“Gardening is a form of nature therapy, an antidote to stress,” he said. For many of the women, being in the garden is, “one way to deal with the stress in their lives.” And garden time isn’t all work, he added: “The women socialize in the garden. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with anxiety, cognitive decline and stress. These women come from a tribal society where people like to gather and socialize. This garden gives them some of that.”