A number of Chicago’s 3,000 Burmese refugees have found a place that feels like home, improbably situated in the middle of a thriving metropolis of 2.6 million people: a lush, sprawling acre of Midwestern farmland. Tucked inside an 8-foot-tall metal fence and pinched between the shadows of large brick apartment complexes, this all-organic farm gives these and other refugees a chance to do what they know best.
“Just about everybody here was a farmer back home,” says Linda Seyler, the manager of the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm. “They used the word home a lot, especially when we were building this. It’s in a ‘being resettled finally’ sense.”
Maddy Crowell is a multimedia freelance journalist who has previously reported out of Ghana and Morocco. Twitter: @madcrowell
Converted from the ruins of a candy distribution warehouse, the land was purchased by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership (an arm of the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement) from the city of Chicago for $1 (although apparently the city has yet to collect). Located in the ethnically diverse Albany Park neighborhood, it is the only refugee farm in Illinois, and one of a small handful in the United States.
Seyler says many of the urban farmers at Global Garden spent at least 20 years of their lives in refugee camps after being forced out of their home countries. “That’s 20 years in limbo,” she says. “They were not allowed to work, and everything is rationed — food, water, living space.”
With the farm, the refugees nurture a small piece of land they can call their own, rent free. For many, it’s also an escape from the chaos of the city. A hundred individual plots feed about 100 Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese and Congolese families, and anything left over can be sold at a nearby farmers market.
It’s a living amoeba of shared space, with farmers tending not only their own gardens but also their neighbors’. Some farmers push their growing season as late as November to get the last of the summer harvest.
Despite ministering to four different ethnic groups, Seyler found surprising agreement when it came to choosing which crops would kick-start the farm. “There would be one picture of some greens in the catalog, and they’d all say, ‘We like that!’ The pictures evoked something,” she says. She ordered anything they requested from a Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog.
Roselle is a sour surprise
At first, the farm was dotted with standard American crops — spinach, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, basil, thyme, sunflowers, mustard greens. Soon, however, Seyler began to notice a crop she didn’t recognize.
Chin baung, or roselle in English, announced itself in the form of red sticks poking up from the ground and appeared on the farm three years ago. A chewy, leafy, tart relative of the hibiscus family, the plant is as common in Myanmar as basil is here. Many Burmese families began searching it out as soon as they emigrated.
“My dad first ordered it from Thailand because he didn’t know there were seeds here,” explains 16-year-old Su Mon, a Burmese refugee who has spent the past seven years in Chicago. Mon sells her family’s vegetables at a local farmers market in Chicago every Saturday, including bunches of chin baung. “It’s very, very popular. Every Burmese family plants it.”
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Before the Albany Park farm was founded in 2011, the Mon family stocked up on chin baung by traveling to Fort Wayne, Ind., which has a large Burmese population. Although the seeds are expensive, chin baung grows fast and stays hearty in the field a long time. It emerges as a maroon stem, and then buds into a three-leaved green leaf, edible immediately.
Known as mei qui qie in Mandarin Chinese, krajeap in Thai and asam paya in Indonesia, the plant does more than add a tangy kick: it’s full of iron, calcium, niacin, riboflavin and vitamin C, and can either be ground for tea or chopped up and added to salads. Mexicans put its red flowers in their tea for a tart Flor de Jamaica-flavored accent. Most Burmese throw the leaves on top of anything, from chicken soup to fish curry.
At the local Horner Park farmers market, one bunch of chin baung sells for $2 and is becoming popular among American customers looking to add some exotic leafy greens to their dinners. It provides a chewy complement to a lemony chicken or whitefish.
But for the Burmese, chin baung is invariably the featured ingredient of any meal. Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry, a deeply flavorful whirlwind for the taste buds — spicy and sour at the same time.
Chin Baung Kyaw (Fried Roselle Leaves)
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 3 to 5 servings
2 bunches roselle leaves
1 tablespoon cooking oil
¼ tablespoon turmeric powder
¼ tablespoon red chili powder
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon pounded dried shrimp (optional)
1 small can of shredded bamboo shoots (not raw)
6 green chilies
Bean noodles (optional)
Prepare the roselle by breaking off the leaves at the base. Wash and drain the leaves.
Heat the oil in a frying pan.
Add turmeric, red chili powder, onion and garlic. Stir until the onion paste is golden brown.
Add the dried shrimp if using, roselle leaves, 1 tablespoon of water and stir well. Add salt if desired.
When the roselle leaves are soft, add the shredded bamboo shoots and green chilies. For extra spice, cut small slits into the chilies.
Cover and let simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a separate pan, heat up the bean noodles if using or steam rice for extra texture.
Main photo: Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell