After nearly 20 years in refugee camps, this Bhutanese community is giving back with vegetables

After nearly 20 years in refugee camps, this Bhutanese community is giving back with vegetables

Sitting by the banks of the Murray River in north-eastern Victoria is an outcrop of plants and colour, surrounded by grazing cattle and native birds.

Discovering this collection of miniature paddocks and garden beds, complete with shady lanes and climbing vegetables, would surprise any wandering tourist, who might feel like they have entered a tranquil farming village in south Asia.

Harka Bista and Dinesh Rai are always looking for ways to improve the community farm.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jason Katsaras)

It is this peace which Bhutanese Community Farm secretary Harka Bista credits with improving the mental health of his large Bhutanese community in the region, many of whom moved from an agrarian lifestyle to the concrete and asphalt suburbs of country Victoria.

“We realised that most of our community was coming from an agricultural background and so the idea to start a farm came,”  Mr Bista said.

“We wanted to rid ourselves from mental health issues and trauma, particularly for those who had trauma coming from a refugee background.

“It was important that people have a social connection with each other, to share produce and share our culture.

“We go to work and come back here afterwards to sit and share among each other how they grew food back in Bhutan, and share those tips and ideas.”

The Bhutanese Community Farm is hoping to expand its footprint to accommodate more cultural groups and farmers.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jason Katsaras)

But, Mr Bista explained, it took some time for farming practices to be relearnt, as the majority of Bhutanese refugees spent nearly 20 years in refugee camps in eastern Nepal before being resettled in Australia.

“The seven different camps were in Nepal run by the UN — we weren’t able to leave, after years we even tried to go back to Bhutan but couldn’t,” he said.

“I was 17 when we arrived in the camp and I was 35 years old when we came to Australia.”

After resettling, in 2015 the newly arrived Bhutanese community in Albury Wodonga established the support of the local council and began to grow a sense of belonging in a new environment.

For the cost of water (around $20 a year), families could claim a parcel of land to grow fresh produce. 

Importantly, the farm is completely organic due to its proximity to the Murray River.

Tikal Subdi (centre) enjoys tending to his plot at the community farm with his daughter Seren and parents-in-law Eradeep and Sindira Dhaka.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jason Katsaras)

Opening the doors 

Six years after the garden’s founding, the board saw a need to include other new migrant groups in the scheme who, despite coming from other parts of the world, shared a common history of farming and food-sharing.

The fruits of labour have also empowered all the communities to help the needy in their adopted country, with 6,000 meals donated to local food charities every year.

Mr Bista said the farm became a cultural melting pot and dozens of new vegetables began to appear.

“The different cultures grew different veggies to us but we began to share tips and skills with each other, as well as food,” he said.

Foundation member Bhakti Dhamala has since farmed alongside Filippino, Indian and Congolese families.

“It’s fantastic, it’s more vibrant, it’s colourful, we’re learning other culture and languages,” Mrs Dhamala said.

“It’s become more welcoming, we don’t need to go to any language classes now.

“When we see African people for example we say ‘jambo’ or ‘shava shava’. We learn all the greetings.”

Bhakti Dhamala enjoys sharing and exchanging her produce with her plot neighbours.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jason Katsaras)

Mrs Dhamala, who spent 19 years in the same refugee camp as Mr Bista, said her parents relished the opportunity to pass down their knowledge and skills of farming.

“They really missed it, and at first they were stuck at home,” she said.

“This was a great opportunity for all of our elders. They didn’t need counsellors’ mental health support once they started coming to the farm and talking to others.”

Mrs Dhalama said the idea should be spread to other communities, particularly with migrant populations.

“It should grow, to all areas,” she said.

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