Saturday, September 29, 2007

Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

Kate Heartfield . The power of volunteerism
Kate Heartfield, The Ottawa CitizenPublished: Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The most powerful force for good on the planet is the inclination to act on a simple idea.
Why not volunteer? Why not compost? Why not offer your unused land to somebody who can use it?
That last one is the idea that came to Roger Stone a few months ago. He'd read one of my columns about the Karen refugees, people who have been living for years in camps on the border between Thailand and Burma. Canada is resettling hundreds of the refugees, and more than 100 have already come to Ottawa.

Roger Stone, centre, has given a group of Karen refugees in Ottawa, including Lah Say, left, and Way Thaw, use of several acres of formerly fallow farmland on the edge of Kanata's suburban growth so they can grow food.

Mr. Stone lives in a farmhouse that's more than a century old, in a rural area that seems doomed to be swallowed up by suburban Kanata South. A stone's throw from the strip malls and parking lots, Mr. Stone and his wife Margaret live with their border collies and the flowers and birds, a few outbuildings and some lovely old trees. They moved there as newlyweds nearly 40 years ago.
Part of their land has been sitting fallow for years. Mr. Stone thought the newly arrived refugees might be able to use it, for picnics or barbecues. So he got in touch with Nimrod Andrew and Colleen Scott, who have been working tirelessly to help the newcomers adjust to life in Ottawa.
Ms. Scott told him that what the Karens really wanted was a place to grow crops. So Mr. Stone, an engineer, mowed about an acre of his land.
"They took one look at it and said, we'll take the whole field," Mr. Stone says cheerfully. "That's when I started to think about water."
He found a guy with a rototiller who could help clean up the field. "Within about a week from a standing start, we were ready to go," he says, surprised himself at how smoothly it happened.
The Karens are now using about three or four acres. Their rows of tomatoes, eggplant, coriander, corn, lettuces, onions, squash, cabbages, dill and peppers stretch across the field, dotted with rain barrels and a few young oaks planted by jays or squirrels.
Mr. Stone hasn't just made his land available; he's become a friend to the community. He keeps a curious eye on the crops and talks with the farmers, across the barriers of culture and language. He gives them advice about growing in this climate, about the need for water and weeding -- although he admits to some embarrassment on the water score, since our summer so far has been downright tropical.
OC Transpo does have a route that goes fairly close to Mr. Stone's place, although it can't be a very convenient trip. So some of the refugees stay overnight on the weekends, making use of a trailer on the grounds or Mr. Stone's homemade indoor squash court (he's always trying to find partners.) The kids swim in his pool.
There's more work to be done: He wants to create a shelter so the farmers can grow from seed next year instead of buying seedlings. As long as the Stones are on the land, it looks as if it will be available for the Karens.
The crops look fantastic: when I was there, the tomato plants were heavy with green fruit and the Karens were harvesting the lettuces and cabbages.
They might not have experience with the Canadian climate, but they do have experience with farming. Many of the refugees grew food in the camps, and before that, when they were living in Burma and being persecuted by the military. In March, I interviewed a woman named Say Blue, who spent 14 years in the camps. She told me she'd like to have a place to grow vegetables: now she does.

These refugees have been in this alien culture for less than a year and most of them don't speak fluent English or French. Despite that, despite all the difficulties they face, they get on the bus and spend their weekends growing food. It's the simplest way people can provide for their families, and a universal joy.
And it started with a very simple idea: if you don't need something and your neighbour does, you lend it out. It's a country idea, as beautiful and old-fashioned as Mr. Stone's house. And just like Mr. Stone's country house, I hope it survives.
I think it will: I know of many other Ottawans who have helped the Karens in their own ways. Anyone who'd like to help at harvest time or on special projects at the farm can e-mail me and I'll put them in touch with the Karen community.

Kate Heartfield writes for the Citizen's editorial board. Blog:

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