Seeking Serenity in a Patch of California Land

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FRESNO, Calif. -- Like Scotch broom and dandelions, despair can be invasive. This is why, every Monday, Lee Lee, a Hmong refugee, puts on her sun hat and flip-flops, grabs the hoe handmade by her father and brother in Laos and heads to the Hmong Village Community Garden here, where she tends rows of purple lemon grass, bitter melon and medicinal herbs along with other Hmong women.

"It lightens the load," said Ms. Lee, whose depression has led her to think about suicide. "It brings peace, so I do not forget who I am."

The garden, on the scraggly outskirts of town, is one of seven in Fresno created for immigrants, refugees and residents of impoverished neighborhoods with mental health money from the state. At the Slavic Community Garden, Ukrainian refugees persecuted for their religious beliefs in the Soviet Union now grow black currants for jam, dill for pickles and soups, and medicinal calendula flowers from Ukrainian seeds.

The thinking of community leaders and health professionals is that gardens can help foster resiliency and a sense of purpose for refugees, especially older ones, who are often isolated by language and poverty and experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress. Immigrant families often struggle to meet insurance co-payments, and culturally attuned therapists are in short supply.

The budget, about $171,000 a year for construction and maintenance of the community gardens and adjoining meeting spaces here, is made possible by the California Mental Health Services Act of 2004, which put a 1 percent tax on personal income of $1 million a year or more.

Spending state money this way has been controversial, with some advocates for those with mental illnesss arguing that gardens are an unaffordable frill in an era of diminishing resources. From 1995 to 2008, the state cut $700 million a year in core mental health services like psychiatric facilities.

"Should they be a priority when there is no evidence of how many seriously mentally ill are served?" asked Curtis A. Thornton, a member of the Fresno County Mental Health Advisory Board.

The one-fourth of the tax proceeds that is designated for prevention, early intervention and innovative approaches to care finances a range of roughly 400 projects throughout the state.

Many immigrant and refugee cultures do not have a tradition of formal mental health treatment, said Rocco Cheng, a psychologist and a director of the California Reducing Disparities Project, a statewide policy study. "Therapy is a Western concept," he said. "The Hmong do not have a word for mental illness." But, he said, they are well able to grasp the idea of mental, physical, spiritual and emotional wellness.

On a recent morning, Yer Vang, 53, sang a plaintive song about loneliness as she worked her rows of "zab zi liab," a medicinal plant used to treat high blood pressure. Across the way, Mee Yang, a 65-year-old shaman, weeded long beans beside makeshift scarecrows made of rows of T-shirts slung over a wire. She said she suffered from diabetes and depression and worried about making ends meet (about 45 percent of Hmong children in Fresno County live in poverty, according to a recent report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the Asian Law Caucus).

"This is my happiness," Mrs. Yang said of the garden. "You feel the world in this place, and it brings you back home."

Four of the seven gardens are dedicated to Southeast Asians, many of whom were subsistence farmers in their homelands. The Hmong garden was established two years ago by the Fresno Center for New Americans, a nonprofit refugee organization. During the Vietnam War, many Hmong experienced rape, starvation and the murder of family members. Mrs. Yang survived by eating longleaf jungle plants, "the kind Americans put in the mall to decorate," she said.

Ghia Xiong, a psychologist with the center, is willing to meet clients on their own turf. He consults with the gardeners over a shovel instead of in an office. He said the garden "de-stigmatizes" mental health treatment by providing a safe place to talk. "Many Hmong have been in refugee camps, where there was fear and intimidation," he said. "Then they get to America and it's 'O.K., open up.' "

Neng Yang, an outreach specialist with the center, said, "Sometimes you'll drop by and see three or four ladies crying together, rain or shine."

Andrey Kovalenko, the director of Slavic family support services for Fresno Interdenominational Ministries, which operates five of the gardens, said that the 7,500 or so Russian-speaking evangelical Christians, including members of his own family, still contend with emotional reverberations from religious persecution, which included humiliation at school, arrests and forced exile. For many, mental health treatment is "a taboo subject, associated with the Soviet system of being locked up." The garden, he said, "helps them to reattach."

Assessing the results is a challenge. "We don't know what kind of effect it has," said Jessica Cruz, the executive director of the state's National Alliance on Mental Illness. "But any entryway into mental health is positive, especially for underserved populations."

In West Fresno, the Growing Hope garden, a collection of raised beds, is on the grounds of the West Fresno Family Resource Center in a black and Latino neighborhood with widespread poverty and toxic industrial sites. The area is nicknamed the Dog Pound after a local gang.

The garden draws mothers like Alejandra Vasquez, who has seven children and is growing tomatillos, cilantro, green squash and other vegetables. Organic produce is too expensive, she said, and the nearest supermarket is more than 20 minutes away.

At the new Punjabi Sikh Sarbat Bhala Community Garden, which means "may good come to all," older Sikhs are mentors to younger gardeners, instructing them on how to harvest fenugreek seeds and use a hand sickle called a datri.

The old men who were farmers in India share memories of oxen races and tell folk tales that invariably end with a moral: hard work pays off.

Amandip Singh Gill, a 32-year-old garden organizer, observed that in the Gurdwara, or temple, "guys have to maintain a successful persona. You can't say: 'Oh man, I just lost my job. How will I support my family?' But here," he said of the garden, "a shared history kicks in."

In a warehouselike shelter, they gather to discuss mental health and community concerns, including a recent attack on an 82-year-old Sikh in Fresno who was beaten with a steel rod. The plan is to bring counseling and other social services to the garden, Mr. Gill said.

The young novices include Parmeshvar Kaur Dhaliwal, a high school senior, who is part of a group of female gardeners.

Ms. Dhaliwal was pruning as the night turned cool, a stack of rubber message bracelets -- including ones for Sikh unity and Fresno conservation -- on her wrist.

"Young women have to prove ourselves more than our brothers do," she said. So the group supports one another, "especially if a girl is down," she said.

Arminder Singh, a young gardener and a former gang member, said he found himself fortified by his elders, including his grandfather, as they hoe and weed side by side.

"When I used to have free time, I didn't know what to do," he said. "Here, I don't have to sit at home thinking about the past and what I don't have."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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