Göttingen, Germany

Gardens of Intercultural Delight

Internationale Gärten e.V. Göttingen

March 31, 2014

A community garden seeds friendship, connection and intercultural understanding as it helps new immigrant families take root.

shimeles-im-gespraechIntercultural gardens bring together Germans and immigrants… from all strata of society to cultivate fruit and vegetables, exchange seed and recipes, build small, wooden community houses and clay baking ovens, cook, organize barbecues, and celebrate. Working the soil together, which has allowed many to use their knowledge and abilities for the first time in Germany in an international context, also creates a field of learning that goes far beyond planting and harvesting garden produce.”

A flourishing garden, like most good things, starts with the seed of an idea. In this case, a desire to do something you’ve always done, but in an unfamiliar place. Connect that desire to a local resource and the result can be magical and transformative.

“It was not by chance that the intercultural garden movement in Germany had its beginnings in an immigrant centre. In 1995 Bosnian refugees found themselves stranded in Göttingen, awaiting the end of the war in their home country, women unaccustomed to idleness who missed their big vegetable gardens. Together with the Ethiopian agrarian engineer [Tassew] Shimeles, they went in search of suitable land to cultivate even in exile. This was the start of a success story,” says Christa Müller, sociologist and managing partner of the Stiftungsgemeinschaft anstiftung & ertomis in Munich. Shimeles, who has lived in Germany since 1980, was a key catalyst in the creation of International Gardens Göttingen and continues to support what has become the Intercultural Gardens Network.

In Göttingen, people from a number of countries and different religions work side by side on a common effort -– to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs. And for one schoolgirl, it was much more than that. With a widely scattered family of origin, the community garden gave her an opportunity to re-constitute her idea of family: “I was in the garden from the age of about three or four. Just about all the members of the Göttingen International Gardens are my ‘aunts and uncles.’ It’s like a second home. We see each other here all the time. When we’re in town, you notice how many people know me, give me a smile or greet me, or stop for a chat. And most of them know me from the garden.” As Shimeles explains it, “The soil connects us with our neighbors, with other people and institutions. The soil connects us with our innermost strength.”

Creating new community

In these gardens, this connection grows community. Refugees, traumatized and longing to return home, plant seeds of self-reliance, strength and resilience. Children who might otherwise be isolated because of their immigration status and stigma grow roots in their local community. They learn to work the land with the families, get to know other children, build new skills. Women who might be isolated bloom in the garden, which becomes a primary place for their integration experience. Because there may be many women from different countries, they must speak German, a valuable skill that furthers their integration. They meet and network with other women, build confidence in a safe environment, all of which have a direct impact on them. All gardeners are seen as having the potential to contribute, be valued, to seek their place in life. A Kurdish gardener stated that her engagement in the association enabled her to do something for others, allowing her to lead a meaningful life.

Like a garden itself, there is no right way to do create an intercultural garden. In Göttingen, a grass-roots democratic organization leads the way. In some community gardens, immigrants lead the way. In others, community, church groups or committed individuals who want to reclaim or restore a piece of land take the first steps. Some local gardeners may wish to rescue a previous green space, others might want to create a space for newcomers to come together. Others may simply want to garden and enjoy fresh vegetables and herbs. As Christa Müller puts it, in an intercultural garden, “This diversity is deliberate.”

Abundance rather than scarcity

The foundation Stiftungsgemeinschaft anstiftung & ertomis in Munich plays a central role in the Intercultural Gardens movement in Germany, providing educational support and a funding program that invests in a vision of the city as a place of “abundance rather than scarcity.” Their Intercultural Gardens Network provides advice for those interested in setting up new gardens, conducts research and knowledge transfer projects, shares information across the network and with organizations interested in the model outside of Germany. Through their efforts, Germany has intercultural gardens, neighbourhood gardens, self-harvest projects, guerrilla gardening actions and the growing number of mobile urban agricultural projects.

The foundation monitors the network and has noted how each garden in the network learns from the others, but develops its own unique approach and focus. Some communities concentrate on developing intercultural methods in environmental education work, others specialize in therapeutic work with traumatized refugees, while some others focus on vocational training and the development of micro-enterprise in the fields of horticulture or catering.

Success – cross-pollinating ideas across Germany

Since 1995 the Intercultural Gardens Network has taken the good idea from Göttingen, cultivated and grown it across Germany. The foundation maintains a current database of 385 gardens in Germany. Of these, 193 are intercultural gardens.

For Sedika Baqaie, a newcomer from Afghanistan and community gardener in Kassel:   “The garden is a village where different cultures meet and come together to help one another with their problems.” Kassel’s intercultural garden was awarded the 2004 prize for social integration by the social ministry of the federal state of Hesse. In 2010, Mayor Klaus Wowereit was equally eloquent on the occasion of the Intercultural Gardens Network annual meeting in Berlin: “Intercultural gardens enrich our cities… promote the peaceful coexistence and establish a sense of shared responsibility and feeling of home.”

International Gardens Göttingen itself has received many awards for its work, including the 2002 integration prize of the former federal president Johannes Rau; a prize from the Alliance for Democracy and Tolerance for its role in promoting civic engagement in the same year; and in 2006 the ” Göttingen Peace Prize”. In 2007, Göttingen was selected by the London Sustainable Development Commission as one of eight international projects to be studied as an inspiration for future urban policy. The garden continues to expand and innovate, most recently adding a health and nutrition and beekeeping education project.

Making it Work for You:

  • Involve immigrants from the beginning in the project, especially if part of your goal is to work towards greater social inclusion and integration.
  • Create a formal organization around the garden, with terms of reference created and adopted by garden members themselves. This helps to ensure that principles of co-determination and participation are built in from the outset.
  • Work towards diversity of garden members. Work to have as many cultural and socio-economic backgrounds as possible to avoid the dominance of any particular group.

For this Good Idea contact:

Tassew Shimeles, Foundation anstiftung & ertomis

0551/387 98 06

Nomadisch grün: Der Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin-Kreuzberg