Accidental gardener

Susan Pavlin had a black thumb until she and a group of immigrant farmers grew a network of global gardens.

Here is what you’ll find inside Halieth Hatungimana’s Clarkston apartment: a portrait of President Obama hanging in her living room; a mountain of freshly harvested greens called mchicha on her dining room table; an enticing aroma of goat-peanut stew emanating from a burbling pot in her kitchen; four wide-eyed and wary grandchildren, all preschoolers, sitting on her sofa.

“Well, hello there!” says Susan Pavlin to the oldest boy as she lets herself in through the front door. “Do you remember me?” Of course he remembers her, but she’s going to have to work for it. She holds out her hand for a slap. He stares at her, still as a cat, engulfed in the sofa.

“How old are you? Five?” Pavlin, 45, persists. Soon enough, the boy’s left hand emerges from behind his back, each finger splaying out in time to the half smile curling on the corners of his mouth. She high-fives him gently.

There is no forgetting Susan Pavlin, who stands 5’11,” blond and blue eyed. She smiles easily and is disarmingly fond of sustained eye contact. Even so, her half-lidded mien is that of your most easygoing friend, the one who makes room on the sofa at a party and makes sure that everyone has a beer. It doesn’t matter how poorly you understand English, she won’t let you slink away. She will find the simple word, the hand gesture, the staccato cadence, the soothing tone — anything it takes to communicate meaning.

“You ready to cook?” asks Hatungimana, emerging from the kitchen, greeting Pavlin with a warm hug. After five years of working together on the grassroots urban farming initiative Umurima Wa Burundi (Burundi Women’s Farm), these two are old friends.

They settle on a bamboo mat on the living room floor between the open balcony door and a whirring fan with a pile of mchicha stacked as high as their heads. Hatungimana wears a floor-length gown brilliantly patterned in blues and greens, Pavlin a sleeveless black dress with matching headband covering what remains of her hair following treatment for early-stage breast cancer. The four grandchildren inch ever so closer to inspect.

“Like this,” says Hatungimana, demonstrating how to string the stems and rip the leaves.

“Am I doing it right?” asks Pavlin, tearing into a long stalk.

“No good,” laughs Hatungimana, shaking her head. “I show you again.”

Pavlin soon gets the hang of it and begins reciting the mchicha entry from her mental encyclopedia. She loves to overshare facts about important crops. This green, a variety of amaranth that flourishes in hot weather, could feed a lot of food-insecure African immigrants were it more widely planted.

“It’s actually related to pigweed,” says Pavlin as Hatungimana lugs in another pile. “We may be the only farm in the entire country that is cultivating pigweed,” Pavlin laughs, her hands tearing through the cool greens, the children now beside her on the floor.

“You know, three years ago, I never could have imagined this. If Global Growers hadn’t happened to me, I’d be eating tuna fish and mac and cheese now.”


Finding fertile ground

A Midwesterner, Pavlin recalls the food of her youth as “bland” and “simple.” Her dad kept a home garden at their suburban Chicago home, but it existed mostly in service to a massive annual home canning project that resulted in pickled beets and cucumbers she found horrifying. For her, the garden’s only redeeming virture was that she got to skip school if she stayed up all night with her dad, skimming scum from the canning jars.

Gardening and cooking never interested her much, but the family business did: a bowling alley, bar and pool hall that attracted Latino immigrants, primarily from Mexico. After school, she’d spend time there practicing her Spanish. She wanted to speak it well, so at 15 she went to Madrid for a year as an exchange student. It was during the last years of the Cold War, and she was surprised to find so many Spaniards preferred Mikhail Gorbachev and his appeal for nuclear disarmament over Ronald Reagan and his tough freedom talk.

“It made me see there was a world beyond America, with views both pro and con,” she says. Once in college, she began studying Russian.

Pavlin traveled the world avidly throughout college and law school, finishing her education at Emory.

“In second grade I got this idea that if I became a lawyer, I’d understand how the world works.”

Afterward, she landed a job in immigration law for corporate clients. But when it came time to make partner, she quit. She had a nest egg and perpetual wanderlust. She was young and single; the next chapter could write itself. She spent months traveling, then returned to Atlanta and tried to figure what to do next.

“That’s when I discovered the rescue community in Atlanta.”

Pavlin had to talk her way into a low-paid job as a case worker for a relief agency, whose director was dubious. Wasn’t she overqualified? Wouldn’t she bag it when the first six-figure legal job came her way? Pavlin persisted.

The year was 1999, and the refugees pouring into Atlanta were Albanian Kosovars, airlifted out of war-ravaged Yugoslavia.

"These were literally people who 10 days ago had been living in their homes and had fled," she recalls. All the little girls arrived with shorn heads to avoid assault from Serbian soldiers. No one could tell them from the boys."

Pavlin remembers the first family she helped resettle.

“It was a husband and wife with two small children, and they got off the airplane with one small duffle bag. That was all they could bring. The husband had been a lawyer and was successful. But they hadn’t planned on their country falling apart.”


Germinating an idea

Around this same time, Pavlin began experimenting with something new at home: that intoxicating gateway herb, basil.

“My friends were making fun of me because I was so excited about my basil plants,” she laughs. “But I had never been able to keep a houseplant alive.”

Pavlin worked through several of the non-governmental organizations that have turned Clarkston’s 1970s-era apartment complexes into teeming multi-cultural villages, populated by successive waves of immigration. She showed a unique, twinned skill set — as apt at untangling the language of federal regulations as she was interpreting rudimentary immigrant English. She eventually landed a job designing programs and securing funding for Refugee Family Services, where she stayed for nearly 10 years. “That organization really hit home for me, with its focus on women and children.”

While at RFS, she met a man who had been a farmer in Burundi. A thought — a very small one, really — came to her. Maybe he could help her take that step beyond kitchen herbs and plant a small vegetable garden.

“I was strictly thinking Saturday mornings,” Pavlin says. The man asked if some of his neighbors could help with the project. Sure, she said. He came back with a list of 35 names, mostly women.

In Burundi, village women typically kept kitchen gardens, often as large as half an acre, to grow food for their families. Pavlin saw the bigger picture. These women, many of them desperately poor, needed the food. They needed to taste familiar dishes they hadn’t had in years. They needed to get out of their apartments and chicken processing jobs and stick their hands in the earth.

Pavlin realized she needed to help these women start a community garden.

Alas, it would take more than a year to find the land.


Planting seeds

In 2010, the owners of the East Decatur Station retail development agreed to lease an empty Decatur lot to Pavlin for $1 a month.

The Burundi women bundled up in their long gowns, headdresses and hand-me-down parkas and rode the 120 MARTA bus down East Ponce de Leon Avenue to Decatur, walked across the tracks and found the former Friends School playground that they would till, sow, irrigate and turn into an ad hoc farm. It was only three-quarters of an acre, not a lot, but a start.

For provisions they brought mandazi, fried fist-sized balls of dense dough. (Since coming to America, they had begun making them with Aunt Jemima pancake mix.)

Everything had to start from scratch. Row cropping was a new experience for these women, who back home had intercropped their vegetables in a radiating pattern. So was the bewildering variety of seeds.

"We communicated through seed catalogs," Pavlin recalls from that first planting. The women got excited when they saw basil seed in a catalog and asked to plant row after row. But when the the herb came up "they walked right across it and completely ignored it." Pavlin rolls her eyes at the memory. We don't eat that, they said. They had mistaken the seed for mchicha.

Many other things surprised Pavlin that first season. “They ate the squash leaves and stems, but not the summer squash. They didn’t want anything to do with green beans. They harvested the green bean leaves to eat those, selectively plucking the leaves.” They let the pods mature and dry on the vine to harvest the dried beans.

Pavlin immediately saw the upside: Whatever these women didn’t want they could sell.

Word of the tiny farm spread throughout the immigrant community of Clarkston like a game of telephone spoken in languages called Kirundi, Kuki-Chin, Sgaw, Pa’o and Dzongkha, all through the wobbly lingua franca of English.

Pavlin’s appointment book filled fast. First came the leader of the Karen people of Burma. Then the ethnic Nepalis of Bhutan. “There were six different communities at least that came to me,” Pavlin recalls. “It was mostly for women, and you have to remember they already had jobs. They weren’t getting paid for this, but literally taking time out of their lives.”

They all had the same question: Can you help us farm?

So, Pavlin secured an $85,000 grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and established Global Growers, a nonprofit organization that leases farm land throughout DeKalb County, provides farm training to more than 250 immigrant families and operates a cooperative sales outlet for their harvests.

When she sent out word that Global Growers could carve 35 garden plots from fallow land behind the United Methodist Children’s Home in Decatur, 60 families applied within the hour.


Cultivating crops

On a recent Saturday morning, Halieth Hatungimana, stands under the unblinking sun washing and packing Swiss chard to sell to the Global Growers cooperative. “It’s so hot here, and then so cold in winter!” she laughs. “In my country we’re near the mountains, so much better weather.”

Not that she’s seen her country lately. Hatungimana fled during the Burundi civil war of the early 1990s, a tribal conflict much like that in neighboring Rwanda. She then spent the better part of 15 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania before she was granted asylum in the United States.

The first time she reunited with anyone from her home village happened at the Burundi Women’s Farm. Marguerite Barankitse, a humanitarian who runs a children’s aid organization in Burundi, toured the farm when she was in Atlanta to give a speech. She and Hatungimana stared at each other in disbelief, spoke a few words and broke down in tears as they embraced. They had last seen each other as teenagers, the day their village was attacked.

The chard packed, Hatungimana prepares squash stems and leaves for her family dinner. She pulls gossamer-fine strings from the crisp, young stems. When she gets home, she’ll mince the stems and braise them with onion, tomato, Scotch bonnet pepper and “peanut fufu” — pulverized ground peanuts.

Home is a bus ride and a half-mile walk away, something she will labor through with a cane. Since she was hit by a car two years ago, she walks with a pronounced limp. But nothing will keep her from her thrice-weekly visits to her farm.


The heart of Global Growers is called Bamboo Creek, 15 acres in residential Stone Mountain, a place where ranch-house cul de sacs abut a valley once overrun by bamboo. Now it comprises a training facility in a midcentury house, a storage barn, a training garden, individual family plots and a goat pen.

Ignatius Than and Noela Men, a husband and wife from Burma, were among the first farmers at Bamboo Creek. Their acre plot, which they lease for about $50 a month, is loosely divided into two sections, one for yellow squash, tomatoes, green beans and globe eggplant to sell to the cooperative.

But in the other section,  things get interesting. Than and Men have become the city’s top supplier of suntok, a kind of small, bitter eggplant that looks like a green cherry pepper and tastes like aspirin. They also grow roselle, a relative of flowering hibiscus that’s native to West Africa and has grown popular in Southeast Asia thanks to the tart piquancy of its foliage. In Burmese languages it is called “sour leaf.” Slaves brought the plant to the New World as well, but here it is grown primarily for the flowers, which are steeped for the Jamaican drink sorrel, sometimes called hibiscus tea.

Than and Men’s specialty produce is in such high demand, he hand delivers it to area Asian markets and overnights it to Burmese communities across the country. Pavlin would love to sneak a little into a CSA delivery or interest a local chef, but there just isn’t enough.

Than works stocking a supermarket Monday-Friday near his Cumming home, but makes the trek down to Bamboo Creek every Saturday. In his mid-50s, he is fit and looks farmer-dapper in a well worn fitted cotton Oxford shirt and broad-brimmed straw hat. He stands by a heap of yellow onions that he and two teenage sons have just harvested. His onions and garlic — firm, juicy, sweet, perfectly cured in the storage barn — are perhaps the most unsung treats of local organic agriculture.

Than and Men are both Chin, a Christian ethnic group that had long been oppressed by the Burmese government. Their home village was a place, Than says, “where everyone was a farmer or a smuggler.”


Spreading roots

In April, Pavlin stepped down as executive director of Global Growers and named her former deputy, Robin Chanin, successor. But Pavlin still chairs the board. She is spearheading an ambitious five-year plan to secure a 100-acre training and production farm and expand Global Growers tenfold, targeting $1 million in revenue.

She has also begun laying the groundwork for a new statewide initiative called The Local Source that will connect farmers throughout the state with foodservice institutions in Atlanta. She hopes these immigrant farmers may soon be able to move out of the city, leave their entry level jobs in food processing plants and hotels, and tend the earth. Idealistic? Yes, but if anything, Pavlin is a canny businesswoman. She sees a huge untapped market.

The time has come, she thinks, for local farmers to look beyond the small coterie of farm-to-table restaurants and consider a different scale.

“If Emory University could promise to serve one side vegetable a week for the 21,000 meals it prepares, that would require 50 acres of production,” Pavlin marvels. “Just imagine what that could do for people.”


Pavlin loves to take visitors on a tour of the hidden gardens of Clarkston.

She starts at Indian Valley — a campus of two-story apartment houses that has been the first stop in America for so many newcomers. The Bosnians, the Afghanis, the Iraqis, the Somali, the Burundi, the Burmese, the Nepali. Families arrive with nothing but a single suitcase and meet a case worker at the airport, who drives them to this complex and shows them a modest apartment furnished with hand-me-downs. The following day they will go to Thriftown, a food market in the Clarkston Village shopping center that changes its stock with each successive wave of immigration. They learn how to ride the bus. Then they have one month to find jobs and make rent. Many will find communities of their people elsewhere in America and move on, leaving their apartments for the next to come.

Increasingly, they eke out a small plot to garden.

“Check this out.” Pavlin stops her car along a fence bordering the parking lot. On the other side, a level berm gives way to a gentle slope and a runoff creek. Every inch has been planted, terraced, subdivided, reclaimed for food. Longbeans climb up trellises made of twine and torn plastic bags. Pumpkin vines creep between Loblolly pines, tomato plants hang heavy with fruit and stalks of corn line the creek.

“It’s truly a living landscape,” Pavlin marvels. This eruption of urban farming has been a recent phenomenon. “Three years ago you wouldn’t have seen any of this.”

In addition to these ad hoc farms, community gardens have sprouted up throughout Clarkston. She finds the discreet entrance to the Jolly Avenue Community Garden behind a pair of unoccupied bungalows fronting a residential street. It is run by the Friends of Refugees, a church-based charity. The land in a watershed floods easily, so runoff furrows have been dug, and the farmers move from one section of the plot to another over plywood bridges.

After three years, Pavlin can recognize the ethnicity of a farmer by his plots. The Bhutanese demarcate their gardens with twine trellises twisted into elaborate “cats’ cradle” patterns.

“In this little plot over here,” Pavlin continues, “you can see how the corn, eggplant and beans are intercropped, so it looks Burundi.” She stops, smiles, and her eyes moisten slightly. “Oh, this is Halieth’s garden. I know she has a plot here. This has to be hers.” One stalk of corn, one coddled tomato plant, a little mchicha. She sees the hand of her friend all over it.


Harvest feast

Back in Hatungimana’s apartment, she and Pavlin have finished preparing the mchicha for dinner.

Robin Chanin soon arrives with a 12-pack of Heineken, the only beer Burundians drink. For the next two hours, Hatungimana will prepare a mighty feast in her shoebox kitchen.

She wants to feed her guests but also wants to teach them. This is important work, her food, her culture. Thanks to Global Growers she can prepare it with fresh, organic Georgia-grown ingredients.

She pours a glug of blood-red palm oil into a big aluminum pot and adds onions, tomatoes, Scotch bonnet peppers. She stuffs the mchicha into the pot and covers it with a plastic bag before putting on the lid. When it has cooked down, she stirs in “peanut fufu” made from Planters dry-roasted nuts she has pulverized. The smell is intoxicating.

“Oh my God, Halieth!” Pavlin cries, rolling her eyes, when she dips her finger into the pot to try. “I’ve never had such good mchicha.”

This meal is Hatungimana’s way of giving back. After the unspeakable events of her home, the never-ending no man’s land of her refugee camp, the shock of America, the heat, the cold — she can make this food for her friends. It is her influence, her seed to plant in Atlanta’s garden.

There is goat stew, potatoes, beans, greens and more greens. Hatungimana finally allows herself an icy Heineken as she joins her guests and family around the coffee table.

“Bon appétit,” she says, her eyes twinkling.

I first heard of the Burundi Women's Garden from a friend who volunteered in the rescue community. It isn't far from my house, and I walked by it time and again. Eventually, I began to catch sight of the women in their colorful dresses working, and I wondered not only who they were, but also who brokered this arrangement. By the time I reached out to Susan Pavlin, she was busy transforming this first project into the complex network that is Global Growers. We played a two-year game of phone tag that thankfully ended with a meeting.

John  Kessler
Chief food writer

About the reporter

John Kessler joined the AJC in 1997 as the chief dining critic. A former chef, he now oversees the paper's dining coverage in print and online. He has earned a James Beard Award and has been included nine times in the "Best Food Writing" anthology. His previous Personal Journey on Ryan and Jen Hidinger won second place for feature writing in the Georgia APME Awards .

About the photographer

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream's Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves' National League Division Series.