Students engage with local refugee community through gardening


Katsuo Nishikawa Chavez

Photograph provided by Professor Katsuo Nishikawa

This semester, the Introduction to International Studies class (INTL-1301) is getting out of the classroom and into the real world. Instead of just learning about the plight of today’s refugees, they’re helping those refugees.

Students are engaging with the refugees by communicating with them directly to support the CIELO garden, as Laura Rodríguez Amaya, assistant director at the Center for International Engagement and professor of the Introduction to International Studies course, explained.

“We have virtual conversation circles with CIELO members from different countries including Chad, Iran, Congo, Nepal and others where students can acquire important cultural competencies and make connections with what they learned in class,” Rodríguez Amaya said.

Ellis Jacoby, sophomore and Introduction to International Studies student, explains that, in addition to getting to know the refugee CIELO members, students in the class worked alongside them in the garden.

“We took a field trip there to assist the gardeners, and helped them in moving dirt around, mowing and helping them clean up the garden,” Jacoby said.

Running such a prominent source of assistance to refugees takes more than hard work. It takes resources and funding, so the Introduction to International Studies class is also helping CIELO with that side of their mission.

“Students in the class are collaborating with CIELO to secure funding to expand its community garden plots to welcome new families from around the globe … we are also collecting personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies and winter clothing in support of our new neighbors arriving from Afghanistan. In addition, we are looking for children’s books for CIELO families that represent and celebrate their diversity,” Rodríguez Amaya said.

While this is the first year Trinity has been involved, CIELO was started 12 years ago by Catholic Charities, Northside ISD Adult Education and House of Prayer Lutheran
Church with support from University of Incarnate Word’s Interfaith Council and Green Spaces Alliance South Texas.

While these organizations started the garden, it is the refugees that are responsible for keeping it up, as Jennifer Yáñez-Alaniz, the director of CIELO Unity in Action, a ministry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church, explained in an email.

“Our gardeners were resettled in SA as refugees at some point anywhere from 1-12 years ago. Many have since become [U.S.] citizens. All are here because they suffered some sort of displacement, danger such as persecution or war, many have survived war, attempted genocide and other atrocities — they are powerful and resilient,” Yáñez-Alaniz wrote.

The garden is much more than a source of food for the refugees tending to it.

“The gardeners are all refugees from a variety of countries, mostly with agricultural backgrounds. The garden gives them an opportunity to retain a piece of their previous lifestyle by growing their own food and working the soil with their own hands. For the gardeners I talked with, food was a key way in which they could keep traditions from their home countries alive, and they very much appreciated the opportunity CIELO gave them to have their own plot of ground for growing food,” Jacoby said.

The funding that comes from community partners, like Trinity’s Introduction to International Studies class, is used for providing refugees with many garden essentials that allow the refugees to continue to connect with their culture.

“Funds can help in many ways — we are in need of repairing/replacing garden beds, building out trellises for vertical gardening, soil, water bill — sponsorships for new gardens for a family,” Yáñez-Alaniz wrote.

If anyone wants to help the International Studies class in their engagement with our refugee community in San Antonio, they can donate on campus.

“If anyone is interested in donating some of the items we are collecting, we will have a table at Coates during International Education Week (IEW) Nov. 15-19. Check out the IEW flyer for days and times in Leeroy. We also have collection boxes at the Center for International Engagement located on the first floor of the library, room 141,” Rodríguez Amaya said.