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Boise Refugee Garden May Be Uprooted

Families fear they might lose their plots at Boise's Jordan Street Garden


Walking through a west Boise neighborhood on a sunny summer day a few years ago, Shamsul Safi saw, nestled among some bungalows, a large plot of land teeming with greenery. He had found the Jordan Street Garden.

A few refugees from Nepal worked in the garden that day, and Safi asked for a spot. He was given a small plot and planted some radishes.

"I took good care of them, and they gave me another spot," Safi said as his daughter translated. "I planted many flowers."

Safi was one of the first refugees to plant flowers at the Jordan Street Garden, which was established on the corner of Jordan and 30th streets in 2009. There are 15 families—mostly refugees who live in the neighboring apartment complex—growing vegetables on the land.

Originally from Afghanistan, Safi spent 26 years in India before he was able to relocate his family to Boise three years ago. During the summer, he goes to the garden twice a day. He never picks his flowers, but he plants a large, vibrant variety. His wife loves to sit among them.

"We really need that," Safi said. "[The garden] brings peace and happiness to many families, as well as vegetables."

Safi had a garden in India before moving to Boise, but "someone took it and made a house there."

Now, Jordan Street Garden could be facing the same fate.

The lot was originally going to be sold in 2008 but when the economy tanked, the owner couldn't sell it. That's when a nearby neighbor, Shana Moore, stepped in and helped create the Jordan Street Garden.

"Now the market has recovered," Moore said. "I sat down with [the landowner] this fall and she said she would give us one more year. It might be longer, but she's only committing to one more growing season."

This is deeply distressing news for Moore, who said the garden has become an important place in the city. She said she wishes every vacant lot was used to grow food.

"All these people really rely on that spot," she said. "I feel like I have a responsibility to give them a place to grow."

Moore would like to found a nonprofit or partner with another nonprofit to purchase the property and keep it a community garden. Moore is a real estate agent and figures the lot is worth $200,000-$250,000. The Ada County Assessor lists the property at $89,100.

"It has filled this need and created community in the neighborhood, and I would really like to take steps to get this permanent," she said. "I don't want five more skinny row houses, you know?"

The landowner, Sally McMinn, is faced with a problem: she pays more than $1,500 per year in property tax and because there is no structure on the lot, she gets no exemptions.

She doesn't have any immediate plans to sell but agreed to let the garden grow for only one more year before she makes a decision.

"I'm from a farm in eastern Idaho," McMinn said. "[Developers] are gobbling up all our farmland and turning it into houses. As long as we have a downtown and a city, we should be using that to build houses and the farmland to grow crops. That's my take on it."

There may be another option for the refugee families currently holding garden plots at Jordan Street: Three blocks away sits another lot also used as a garden.

Greg Hayes started the 32nd Street Garden four years ago. When he first turned his empty lot into a garden, he had a tremendous amount of interest from neighbors and friends who wanted to be involved.

"Then we had a drop-off. Some of the 30-year-olds weren't showing up as much as they should have. Then by the third year, the weeds started taking over and no one was pulling them. This year, it dropped again," Hayes said.

When he heard there were refugee families possibly in need of garden space, he was quick to offer up his land. It's roughly the same size as the Jordan Street Garden and has water on demand—a perk Jordan Street doesn't have, instead relying on weekly flood irrigation.

Hayes also sees the plan as a way to combat recent negative rhetoric targeting refugees.

"I hate these people that are trying to push all these refugees away. That's not the solution," he said. "Refugees are not going to be committing acts of terror against us. If I had 50 people here every day, I don't care if they are refugees or neighbors. I don't feel any more in danger."

Moore echoed Hayes' sentiments.

"I feel like, because of this project, they just don't even occur to me as a potential threat," Moore said. "They are just people that live in my neighborhood, and they are amazing growers, and they share everything they have."

Though 32nd Street Garden may be a good alternative to Jordan Street, Safi hopes to keep his plots where they are.

"We like Boise. We know there are other states that are beautiful, but we want to be here. We feel the same way about Jordan Street Garden," he said. "If she sells it, she'll get a lot of money. We think the blessing we give is worth more than any money she would ever get. We are so attached to that garden."