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From Seeds In Their Pocket To Food On Your Table, Refugees Bring Tastes Of Home To Texas

It’s an overcast spring morning at the East Dallas Community Garden. Voeun Tath is preparing this weekend’s harvest: heirloom lettuce and Cambodian bunching onions. She’ll take some home to her family, but most of it will end up on tables in homes and restaurants all over North Texas.

Tath is one of several hundred refugee gardeners who hold plots at community gardens across Dallas.

“When I was in Thailand, I gardened there, too,” she said. “I sold vegetables for a living.”

Tath fled the Cambodian genocide of 1975. She spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to the U.S. She was part of an influx of refugees who came to Dallas in the early '90s. As they fled civil wars and genocides, they managed to bring a little piece of home along with them.

“Most people, as they move from one country to another, have often brought little samples of seeds, maybe hidden away in pockets here and there that are special to them,” said Don Lambert, who directs Gardeners in Community Development

Lambert says people would take those seeds from their pocket and find a small spot of ground near an apartment building or a vacant lot to plant them.

In the beginning, that created some conflict. Landlords weren’t pleased to find sprawling vines taking over flowerbeds.

So, a coalition of refugees and resettlement agents sought to fix the problem. Lambert says the group acquired a plot of land on Fitzhugh Avenue, and in 1987, they started the first garden.

That coalition became Gardeners in Community Development, which Lambert has headed for over 25 years. Now, there are three community gardens run by Gardeners in Community Development and five others operated by the International Rescue Committee.

Today, Tath tends to her plot in the East Dallas Community Garden and sells produce at a small stand. Her longtime friend Catalina Lino comes to the garden every week to stock up on vegetables and herbs — and to catch up with Tath. 

They met at the community garden in Vickery Meadow, a neighborhood where both women have ties.

Credit Megan Zerez for KERA News
Voeun Tath and Catalina Lino became friends at the East Dallas Community Garden.

Lino is a part of North Texas' large Latino community. She's found that there’s an overlap in the foods that Latinos and Southeast Asians eat: culantro, pumpkin flowers and different types of peppers.

“Especially that plant, with the yellow flower — the Flor de Calabaza — those are really good fried,” Lino said.

The thing is, for a long time, you couldn’t find these ingredients in North Texas.

According to the U.S. State Department, Texas settles more refugees than any other state. And these refugees are shaping the way that people eat across North Texas. 

Sandy Bussey is one of the chef-owners of bbbop, a Korean fusion restaurant with locations across Dallas.

“I do think in this day and age, a lot of those heritage vegetables are slowly going away,” she said.


Credit Megan Zerez for KERA News
Culantro is an herb popular in Southeast Asia and South America. It has a similar taste to cilantro, but grows better in hot, humid climates.

Heritage vegetables, or heirlooms, are cultivars that have been passed down from generation to generation. It's rare to find these varieties in supermarkets, so Bussey turns to small farmers like Tath.

“We do the Chinese long beans, and if you actually pick it off and you eat it, the snap on it and everything is just so much better,” Bussey said. “If you think about it, you pick it off and it’s still living, but if you go to the grocery store, it’s in its dying state.”  

These heirloom vegetables are local now, but Don Lambert says it has taken three decades and a mass influx of immigrants and refugees to make this produce available in North Texas.

“There was a kind of organic process going on where a lot of people were going to the Asian garden, and getting seeds and planting materials and learning how to grow those things in backyards across Dallas, not only by the Asian community but by a lot of other people as well,” he said.

Now, you can find things like lemongrass, snake gourd and pumpkin vines in markets and kitchens across North Texas. Like the immigrants who brought them here, those ingredients are now a part of life in Dallas.

Megan Zerez was a spring 2018 intern at KERA.