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Meredith Byrne '13 believes strongly in the power of plants - plants produce food, plants encourage community collaboration, and plants, she says, can promote peace. This summer, Byrne will establish a community garden in Staten Island's Parkhill neighborhood, home to the largest Liberian population outside of West Africa. Many of Parkhill's residents are refugees, displaced by years of instability and civil war in their home country. "These refugees are living on the periphery of U.S. society, waiting idly for a cue from the international community as to their permanent status," said Byrne, who interned last summer with African Refuge, a Parkhill-based non-profit dedicated to enhancing the lives of disadvantaged peoples. "As a result, Parkhill is a breeding ground for crime, drug use and economic instability. Peace for this population lies not only in the absence of conflict but in the security of good health, a sense of self-reliance and the development of a transnational skill set."
With a $10,000 grant from the Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace program, Byrne, an international relations major from Brookside, New Jersey, plans to empower the residents of Parkhill by creating a permanent community garden made up of 24 4'x8' raised beds. The Roots of Peace community garden, as it will be called, will serve the Liberian refugee community and many other groups in the Stapleton and Parkhill neighborhoods of Staten Island.
"The garden will create a source of nutrition, a sense of self-reliance and a small stream of revenue for members of Parkhill's refugee and low-income community," she said. While the garden won't officially open until early June - a ribbon cutting ceremony is planned for June 11 - the project is already well underway. Byrne has partnered with African Refuge; Healthfirst, a New York-based nonprofit that offers health education; Green Thumb, an organization that provides programming and material support to more than 500 community gardens in New York City; the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, and more than a dozen other community organizations to secure space for the garden, get community buy-in and ensure the long-term success of the project.
"Right now, it's like a full-time job, but I'm so encouraged by the enthusiasm of the entire community," Byrne said. The plants are already sprouting, too. A family friend donated greenhouse space in New Jersey, and the seedlings, which include spicy herbs, leafy greens and beans, will be ready to transfer to the beds in early summer. Byrne hopes the yields from the garden, which will be tended by community volunteers trained by the various partner organizations, will not only encourage healthier eating habits, but also spark discussions on healthy lifestyles. "Most residents lack health care and do not regularly see doctors, leading to a 25-percent higher mortality rate in Parkhill compared to the greater New York area," Byrne said.
As part of the project, she has arranged for weekly speakers to give talks on green employment, health-conscious cooking, managing finances and what it means to be a refugee today. Byrne, a scholar in the College's Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts, said the project combines her interests in environmentalism and immigration and refugee issues. On campus, she is a member of Sprout!, the student-run organic garden club, and Human Rights Now, a student club devoted to promoting the integrity of all human beings. A member of the women's track team, she also serves as a House Environmental Representative for her residence hall, a fellow with the College's career center and a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee.
Next fall, Byrne will study abroad in Cameroon, conducting research on refugee populations there. "Cameroon is stable, but surrounded by unstable governments," Byrne said. "The country accepts a lot of refugees, but those refugees are then left to their own defenses. I'm interested in learning about how they assimilate into the culture in Cameroon." Eventually, Byrne hopes to establish her own non-profit horticultural movement, establishing community gardens in vulnerable communities across the world. "Community gardens provide residents with affordable, healthy food and give people the opportunity to connect around the familiarity of agriculture and foster a new understanding of self-worth and identity," Byrne said. "It's very powerful."
- By Amy Martin