CHELSEA — Aweis Hussein tends his family’s vegetables in a community garden located at Chelsea’s Temple Emmanuel. He grows okra, tomatoes and corn, staples in his native Somalia.
Eleven years ago, Hussein and many from his current Chelsea Somali Bantu community lived in a Kenyan refugee camp. He arrived at the camp in 1991 at the age of 14, in need of protection and sanctuary from the relentless persecution and discrimination the minority Bantus suffered in their homeland.
Today, ten years after arriving in Chelsea, he is the community organizer and leader of the SCA (Shanbaro Community Association). The SCA operates under the umbrella of the Chelsea Collaborative, an organization founded in 1988 to enhance the social, economic and environmental health of the Chelsea community and its people. The SCA’s mission is to support the 400+ Somali Bantu refugees living in the greater Boston area as they forge community relationships and adjust to their new surroundings.
“I was lucky to go to refugee school in Kenya,” Hussein told the Journal by phone. He learned to read and speak English. He learned what to expect in America. Most of his Chelsea community members weren’t as fortunate. “They have never been to school. They have never been to a big village. They were mainly farmers in Somalia. They did not know about flushing toilets and lights and grocery stores.” His leadership role is his way of giving back to his people and using his special knowledge to ease their transition.
Ellen Rovner, of Brookline, is a member of the boards of directors of Chelsea’s Temple Emmanuel and the Chelsea Collaborative. She has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and an academic passion for food. She also has a keen interest in Chelsea’s immigrant community and in bettering the world through tikkun olam.
The idea for the community garden at Temple Emmanuel came to Rovner five years ago, when she was doing field work for her doctoral thesis, “It’s Just Like Coming Home: Food, Gender and Memory in a Jewish Community,” at Temple Emmanuel. She reached out to Roseann Bongiovanni, associate executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative and director of Chelsea Green Space.
“Ellen and I started to talk several years back about making deeper connections between the established Jewish community and the newer immigrant population in Chelsea,” said Bongiovanni, who has worked at the Collaborative for 19 years. “At the same time, Aweis’ group was looking for a place in Chelsea.”
“Roseann contacted me and said, ‘Listen, we have a community of people who are coming out of refugee camps in Kenya, many of whom have spent almost a generation there. They are farmers and they need a place to gather,’” Rovner told the Journal. Hussein pulled together some interested families and Rovner contacted Sara Lee Callahan, Temple Emmanuel president. The temple board members decided to loan the families space in its side yard to grow a community garden.
According to Rovner, Marlene Demko is the person who really made the garden happen. Demko, a lifelong Chelsea resident and a member of Temple Emmanuel since she was a child, sits on its board and acted as liaison between the temple and the Collaborative.
Bongiovanni explained that the first three garden plots were built with donated labor from the NE Carpenters Union. The Union members worked with teens from the Collaborative’s Chelsea Summer Youth Employment Initiative. Teens from YouthBuild, a Cambridge organization, came in recently to expand the garden with three additional beds. They cleared overgrown brush and provided significant landscaping work as well. Demko worked with them to create a vibrant vegetable garden in the temple’s side yard.
“It has been great to see kids from many different backgrounds in Chelsea get excited about bettering their community at the same time a group of Somali Bantu families is becoming more integrated into the community and growing some of their own food on a property owned by a synagogue,” Rovner shared. “Given what’s going on in the world today, that a group of Somali Bantu refugees can find some solace growing food on the temple’s property is fabulous.”
Demko was thrilled to offer the Journal a personal tour of Temple Emmanuel and its community garden. She proudly pointed out the many yahrzeit (remembrance) boards lining the temple’s sanctuary walls, explaining that as the number of Chelsea’s active synagogues dwindled from almost twenty to one, Temple Emmanuel wanted to be sure the Jewish community would always have a place to say kaddish. “We do tikkun olam in so many ways because we’re so grateful that we can do these things and give back,” she explained. The temple has been holding full Passover seders for over ten years for over 130 people, enabling many who might find it otherwise difficult to gather their extended families to celebrate this important holiday.
The Somali Bantu community vegetable garden has inspired Demko to plan several enhancements for congregants, including a temple peace garden and biblical herb garden on some of the rest of the yard. She also envisions a “walk of honor” with stones engraved with donors’ names. With the help of other temple volunteers, she hopes to start this project next spring.
“This will be my mitzvah,” she beams, eyes filling with tears.” I want there to be a peaceful place for the rabbi and congregants to come outside and reflect, even during a service.” The garden will have benches and five gorgeous new trees, donated by the Department of Conservation and Recreation through a grant with the city of Chelsea, the Chelsea Collaborative and the Department of Energy.
Sara Lee Callahan, of Swampscott, has served as president of Temple Emmanuel for ten years. She is proud of the part her temple plays in helping to better the world. “Temple Emmanuel was founded in 1929 and in recent years has experienced a miraculous rejuvenation. Many temple members living all over the United States maintain a connection to this area through the immigrant generations who brought them here. As Temple Emmanuel looks forward to its bright future, and in the spirit of gratitude, we want to create a living chain of tikkun olam. The Somali Bantu’s community garden reflects this concept.”
Aweis Hussein is grateful that Temple Emmanuel has given his community the space to gather and farm together, growing healthy fresh food that is not easily accessible or affordable. More than that, however, he is grateful to meet people who understand what it means to be a persecuted minority and to live in a diaspora. “Many of the temple members are older. We try to talk about our history, to share our histories. It is helping us, this new relationship. I hope it continues,” he said.