KAWSAR JAHAN; Somerville, MA

Words by Kawsar Jahan

Photos from Kawsar Jahan and Shape Up Somerville

East Somerville is one of the oldest and most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Somerville. Its residents are of Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Brazilian, El Salvadoran, and Haitian decent, to name a few. It is also one of the densest parts of Somerville, with more than 12,000 people in a half-mile. Found within this neighborhood, the Mystic Housing Development is host to a vibrant community garden, which is cultivated entirely by residents of the Mystic.

 

Kawsar Jahan came to the United States from Bangladesh in 2004. She lives at Mystic Housing Development and is one of the lucky few residents who have a plot in the community garden . Her plot is very productive. During the summer, Kawsar sells some of the extra produce from her plot to Shape Up Somerville’s mobile farmer’s market. Kawsar has been a long-time supporter of the mobile farmer’s market, working with them since it’s creation in 2011.

“Both of my grandparents are farmers, so I saw how they grow and eat food from our land; vegetables, even milk from goats, cows. I had a little chicken farm in Bangladesh when I was a third- or forth-grader. I loved it!

 

But when I came to America in 2004 and I lived in New York, I didn’t see those things, I never think of America having these types of things [farms and livestock]. We were thinking America was a dream country and that money just flies on the air - but it’s not really true!

 

When I was in New York, we were eating frozen food or would buy really expensive fresh food in grocery stores. I couldn’t find any kinds of vegetables I was used to. When I moved into Boston and Somerville, I was looking for a job, and I was volunteering with The Learning Center. I asked for a part time job. Since I am from Bangladesh and had some experience with agriculture, I was sent to talk to the manager of Shape Up Somerville’s Farmers Market. I started working with the Market in 2011 and I’m still with it and I love it.

 

I knew some friends in the community who had plots at the Community Garden at Mystic Housing Development and the past couple of years I shared a plot with someone who ended up leaving. I was able to take over her plot. So I started my own in 2014. It’s not too big but it’s enough for my family and I have some extra; I give out some to my friends and sometimes I sell my own food at the Market. I’m really enjoying it. I’ve improved my health; I’m diabetic and have high blood pressure and it helps me a lot.

 

I usually grow vegetables from my home country. I grow squash; all different sizes, you can find some that are 10 pounds! I grow callaloo, red callaloo, chili pepper, spinach, different kinds of beans. Boston has some convenience stores that sell the kinds of vegetables I know from Bangladesh, but there’s a green squash that is sold at the Farmers Market, which you cannot find at any grocery store here. I mostly shop for groceries at a local convenience store, they have some groceries like vegetables, fish, and halal meat. Every day I prepare vegetables and fish. We eat meat, but not as much as before.

 

Most people at the community garden grow the types of vegetables from their home countries that they love to eat. A lot of people grow a green, bitter squash. They have some flowers too; rosemary and sunflowers. I think flowers help to protect the vegetable plants.

 

I just shared some squash plants with a woman who got a plot this year and she loved them. Some people’s gardens are really beautiful and I ask them how they grow so well and what types of plants they’re using. We share plants and sometimes people come and give me seeds and plants. You can do that here.

 

In Bangladesh, my grandparents grew everything, rice in a big field, and all kinds of vegetables, they even had cows and goats. We had fish in our big pond that people could catch and eat fresh. Our most common dish in Bangladesh is rice, fish, and vegetables. I never worked on the land in Bangladesh, but I saw how my grandparents grow, so when I found the garden I was excited! Now when I work on the garden I feel like I’m in Bangladesh almost.

 

It’s easier for me to cook Bengali recipes now than before I started at the garden. When I first moved here, it was really hard, I couldn’t eat any food here because I wasn’t used to it. Everything here is frozen, even chicken and meat. We couldn’t find halal meat. We used to go to New York City because they have a big Bengali community so sometimes we would buy lots of things from New York, freeze it and eat for two months. But when I found this community, it felt like I was in Bangladesh."

When I see people at the garden, we talk together, we share our plans and we learn from each other’s growing techniques... when I found this community, it felt like I was in Bangladesh.

"I think the garden is a great community. I have high blood sugar, and one day I checked it and it was high. I knew I hadn’t eaten anything to make it go high, so I went to the garden and watered my plants and spent an hour there. I came home and checked my blood sugar it had gone down. I was surprised and thought, “Wow!”

 

Now, I see a lot of progress in agriculture. We should grow our own food; I think this is really good and healthy for people to learn. And I think we need some more resources and to teach others in the community to grow their own food. I think the main value in growing your own food is to save money, save our health, have fun, stay happy, and spend time doing a good thing.

 

When I see people at the garden, we talk together, we share our plans and we learn from each other’s growing techniques. I hope they can extend the garden for people. There is a long waiting list to get a plot. A lot of people want to get a spot and I don’t think they have space. A lot of people want to grow their own food. I think there are 10 plots; I’m really lucky to have one.

 

I feel like the Community Garden is connected with the Farmers Market. It’s the same kind of program and same kind of food and the goal is the same: healthy food, healthy community. I think the goal of the Garden is so that people can produce their own food and stay healthy. The Farmer’s Market helps people a lot, because of the low prices. When we go to the grocery store, one bunch of kale could be $4, but at the Market it’s only $1 or $1.50. It’s really affordable and it’s convenient because it’s next to their door. And we noticed a lot of people changed their health habits."

RECIPE

I usually cook Bangladeshi vegetable curry with my garden vegetables. This is a very special dish for my family.

 

How to make Bangladeshi vegetable curry:

 1. Regular and seasonal vegetables - curry cut

2. Oil - Vegetable- half cup 

3. Paanch foron ( five spices mix ) - most important spice - 1 teaspoon

4. Garam masalas: 1 as needed

5. Corriander leaves - chopped 100gm

6. Green chilis - 5 to 6pcs

7. Ginger paste - 2 tablespoon

8. Garlic paste - 1 tablespoon

9. Coriander powder - 1 teaspoon

10. Cumin powder - 2 teaspoon

11. Tarmaric powder - 1 teaspoon

12. Chopped onion - 1 cup

13. Warm water - 1 cup

14. Chana daal, Mung Daal, Basmati rice, 1 or 2 tablespoon each soaked into water for 1 hour before cooking.

15. Salt to taste

16. Sugar - 1 teaspoon

17. Dried red chili - 3pcs

For more information about the Mystic Housing Development community garden, visit the website