Growing community

Health, Wellness & Recreation

Photo: Rainbow Community Garden participants at the University of Manitoba site, including Raymond Ngarboui (bottom row, left hand side).
Rainbow Community Garden provides more than healthy, affordable food.

Birkha Dahal used to ride the bus for company. Now, when the weather is warm, he heads out to the Rainbow Community Garden at the University of Manitoba. An initiative of Immigrant Integration Farming Community Co-op (IIFCC) in collaboration with Knox United Church, in 2019 this garden provided more than 200 newcomer and immigrant families with a place to grow food and build community.

When Birkha Dahal arrived in Winnipeg in spring 2015, the Bhutanese senior had a hard time finding a community where he felt welcome, especially during the day when the rest of his family was out, says Dahal’s son Amber Dahal.

“My dad, he’d take a bus ticket and he used to ride. He doesn’t speak English [well]… so he used to go to the airport, to Polo Park – he knows some people there. He’d buy a coffee… spend a couple of dollars, and come back home… In wintertime, he just sits and rides a bus, that’s it.”

That was until the family started coming to the Rainbow Community Garden.

“In summertime, this is the best time for the community,” Amber Dahal explains. “Our culture is different; seniors, they spend time with their families. [My father was] really lonely. When this garden started, he felt like he was with some family. And when it is all done, after harvest, he will most likely be alone again.”

Since 2008, the Rainbow Community Garden project has been providing space for families to plant, tend and harvest their own gardens. That first year, 16 families from nine countries had plots at one location. In 2019, 322 families had plots at the project’s seven different sites, which includes two locations in rural Manitoba. Of those, the University of Manitoba site is by far the largest with 214 families – each with at least five members. Plot sizes are determined by the size of the family.

In 2018, Rainbow Community Garden began helping newcomers and Canadian born families grow veggies in their yards using raised beds and planters where needed. Rainbow Community Garden volunteers help build boxes, provide supplies and help prepare the ground for planting.

“We talk to Manitoba Housing authorities and landlords on behalf of the newcomer families to allow them use the front, side or back of apartment buildings and houses, as many cannot express themselves in English. An enormous quantity of veggies has been produced within newcomer families thanks to this new strategy,” says Raymond Ngarboui, who created and manages the Rainbow Community Garden project on behalf of IIFCC. For his work, Ngarboui was honoured with a Volunteer Manitoba Award in 2017.

In 2019, there were 34 nationalities represented at Rainbow Community Garden sites.

“When we are here, it’s like the world is united,” Ngarboui says.

“We are a small United Nations,” adds Nathaniel Ondiaka, who serves on the Rainbow Community Garden Organizing Committee, which provides planning and maintenance.

The bounties harvested by families reduce monthly grocery bills, and last well into the winter season. More than 70,000 kilograms of food was harvested in 2019, with extra sold at Central Park’s Central Market for Global Families, or donated to families in need.

Families have also had great success planting vegetables from their home countries. For example, bitter melon (Momordica Charantia), which is a vine that produces edible fruit, and sukuma, a type of collard greens, have both flourished at the gardens.

There are many stories of how the Rainbow Community Garden has changed lives.

Amira Khalifa and Amal Mahadi arrived in Canada from Sudan about 12 years ago, and have been coming to the Rainbow Community Garden for about four years. Khalifa is Executive Director of the Canadian African Muslim Women’s Association, and this year she started bringing members to the gardens.

“Sometimes they come here to have some privacy,” says Khalifa with a laugh. Coming here can also help reduce stress, she adds.

Gary Srivastava started volunteering at the Rainbow Community Garden in 2012. During the growing season, he comes seven days a week. When he first started coming, Srivastava was on medication to manage high blood pressure and Diabetes. After three years of gardening, spending time outdoors and building a community, his family doctor discovered dramatic improvements to Srivastava’s health, and reduced his medication.

“These are the kind of stories that when I hear them, they give me the motivation to continue,” Ngarboui says.

Throughout the years, Rainbow Community Garden has been generously supported by Knox United Church, the University of Manitoba, Food Matters Manitoba, Community Education Development Association (CEDA), Assiniboine Credit Union, Peter Nikkel of Landmark, Man., the Ernest Braun family of Niverville, Man, and others. The Winnipeg Foundation has also made a number of grants in support of the initiative.

The Rainbow Community Garden Organizing Committee has big plans for the future – if it can secure additional land and funds. There are 50 families on the waiting list each year and they are always looking for more space, Ngarboui says. The group would like to expand the space for seniors, so they have a sheltered and comfortable place to play cards and enjoy tea and coffee. There are also many young people who spend time on site, so the Committee dreams of installing a play structure one day.

Other goals include improving site layout and walking paths; additional sources of water and an easier way to water the plots; providing solar powered lighting and electricity; erecting fencing; ensuring volunteers have access to refreshments and transportation; improving road access; and providing gardening equipment, such as rototillers, trimmers and lawnmowers.

Learn more:

Recipient: Knox United Church, in collaboration with Immigrant Integration Farming Community Co-op
Program: Rainbow Community Garden
Grant: $110,000 between 2016 to 2019, drawn from the Gray Family Fund, the Moffat Family Fund, and from the hundreds of Community Funds at The Foundation including the Doris Sussman Fund; the Robert and Shelagh Hinch Fund; and the Dave Hill Fund

This story is featured in the Fall 2019 issue of our Working Together magazine. Download or view the full issue on our Publications page.

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