When Chris Yost moved into her east Charlotte home four years ago, she downsized in most every way. Her square footage was smaller. Her mortgage, too. Pretty much everything, she says, but the yard behind the house.
It's just under a half-acre back there, with a mix of natural growth and grass. Chris initially wasn't excited about having to mow all of that land every week, so she worked weekends until she had a better grass-to-natural ratio.
But one Saturday earlier this year, she found herself instead at a local agency, pressed into duty to teach an English class for refugees. Chris had never thought much about the plights of people like the students in front of her, until she accompanied a friend a couple weeks before to hand out backpacks to refugee children at a nearby apartment complex. She decided then she might could do a little more. Giving can sometimes hook you that way.
As she talked to her English students that day, they told her their stories. Some were from Bhutan, a small, land-locked kingdom at the eastern heel of the Himalayas in South Asia. One of the Bhutanese was the best English speaker in the class, Damaru Baral.
Damaru told Chris he was a farmer, like many of the refugees from the agriculture-heavy country. He once had 125 acres of crops, and he sold the harvest at his small farm store until ethnic cleansing forced him from his land and country. He spent two decades in refugee camps before being granted asylum and allowed into the United States, and he was happy to be in his Charlotte apartment complex with his family.
But like the others, Damaru was a farmer with no land.
Chris felt dismay. She thought of her sizable lot.
"Would you like to use my backyard?" she said.
A few days later, in March, three elderly refugee women showed up at her house with hoes and claws. They squatted and began to dig. Grass turned to dirt, and dirt turned to soil. Soon, more refugees arrived - men and women, carving dozens of trenches in the backyard, planting row upon row of vegetables, stretching to the corners and the back of her lot.
They come at least a few days a week now, four families worth of workers, heading straight for the backyard. Early on, a neighbor called the police when he saw one refugee in front of Chris' house, but now everyone knows about the backyard, and there has been no trouble from anyone. "They are very polite," Chris says. "They are very thankful. I can't understand them."
But she understands this: They are farmers, and they are farming.
"These are potatoes," says Damaru, in sandals and shorts and a blue print short-sleeve shirt. "They come up in month." He walks from row to row, pointing proudly to the cabbage spreading its leaves, the purple buds of eggplants, the squash talking over a couple rows, as squash likes to do.
He stops at one stretch of plants. "Coriander," he says, nodding at the feathery leaves. "We eat a lot of this in Bhutan."
Patrice Ognodo stands nearby, a hoe in his hand. Ognodo runs a Charlotte ministry that helps refugees assimilate here. The challenge he faces is not only finding them a place to live, or helping them learn the language, or helping them be a little less homesick. It also is helping them find worth, especially the older adults, who wonder if their best days have been taken along with their homes. "They need to experience what they have done better in their lives," he says.
That's happening here, with buds and leaves, in row upon row, on this half-acre that's fuller than Chris Yost could have imagined. "I'm just amazed," she says. And: "It's an honor."
Damaru Baral, standing between the lettuce and green beans, talks about the crops he grew on his farm back home. Corn and potatoes and vegetables. "Just like this," he says, sweeping his arm across the backyard. "We are glad," he says. And: "We are happy to have ..." He searches a moment for the words. "Our place."