Such a Garden is a Responsibility
So ein Garten ist eine Aufgabe

What Working on the Land has to do With Integration
Was Landarbeit mit Integration zu tun hat

"Such a Garden is a Responsibility." 4 August 2001.

The village called Javlinka has about eight thousand residents and is situated in a southerly direction from the large city of Petropavlovsk in Kazakstan. Only two years ago Anna and Viktor were still living in Javlinka.

They were running a large farm that included several stables, a summer kitchen, some outbuildings, and even a sauna. Two cows produced the milk and a few pigs covered the needed meat for the family, which at the time numbered six members. But they were proudest of their garden, which spread along two sides of the house and which seemed, at least in Viktor's memory, "as large as a soccer field," large enough to supply ample fruits, vegetables, and potatoes over each year. Following each harvest, the storage rooms were always full and the family was prepared for the winter. Years, even decades passed over the land, and the rhythm of nature determined life's rhythm of the people. Then suddenly both, already of retirement age, left Javlinka and followed their children and relatives to Germany.

"We are all born of the earth," says Viktor, gazing out of his sixth-floor two-room apartment onto a concrete inner courtyard, where four colorful trash containers are lined up in a row. Anna and he are now living in Berlin, in a part of the city called Marzahn, which offers lots of gray cement and very little green grass. "It was always such a great joy when the first plants appeared," mulls Anna and explains that the very young seedlings were encouraged to grow inside the warm house long before the end of the cold period, because later on there would be little time for them to develop. Tomatoes, for example, had to be helped in the ripening process after harvest, because winter wasn't far away. When Anna talks about her garden in Javlinka, her back pains seem to fly away and the sadness she often feels seems to be forgotten for the moment. Were they able to live in Güstrow, Anna's and Viktor's dearest wish might already be fulfilled.

The small town of Güstrow has about 35,000 residents and is situated east of Schwerin, the capital city of the state, i.e., nearly in the very center of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The sculptor Ernst Barlach spent many years of his life and his creative period in that former royal capital, and in DDR times [Deutsche Demokratische Republik = German Democratic Republic] the small city in Mecklenburg's lake district was producing food industrially. Around five hundred families from Russia and Kazakstan have moved to Güstrow in recent years. The city and the county are hardly able to offer a multitude of jobs, and unemployment is generally high in this federal land [state], and thus many of the German families from Russia are dependent on public assistance.

Five years ago, Caritas, a Catholic assistance organization which was founded over a hundred years ago and performs Christian social work, started a project from which a number of German from Russia families are able to benefit. The state chapter of the association has been taking over small plots of neglected and partially overgrown gardens and turning individual plots over to needy families. In the 1980s many small cities in the DDR had set aside areas for small gardens in which many residents spent their free time in lieu of opportunities for travel. As heavily as the garden plots were in demand by the general population, just as quickly did interest in them wane following the great changes [of 1989], and many a garden was completely neglected. No one was happy about that development, especially the small gardeners who were still trying to hold on to their parcels.

So it was good that members of Caritas remembered that the German from Russia immigrants most often came from rural areas in Russia and Kazakstan, that work in agriculture had usually been their lives, and that they might miss those activities in Germany, especially if they were living in cities. At its beginning in Schwerin in 1996, the project was given the moniker CARIland. Caritas members met with great interest in the project among the owners of the small-garden complexes, because they were naturally looking for ways to get their land leased and worked on again. During the subsequent year, CARIland was also established in Neubrandenburg and, in 1999, in Güstrow.

"Such a garden is a real responsibility, but it helps to make sense out of life and to give it content again, and thereby it increases one's self-image," reports social worker Gisela Beusch of her experience on the project. Caritas usually rents small parcels of land and often purchases any hut or small house on them. The cost per year is around 3000 DM, and about 600 DM additionally in operating costs covering rent, power, and water. To cover these expenses, Caritas, which funds more than half of its work via contributions, looked for and found sponsors -- usually people with comfortable incomes, who cover a part of the annual expenses and in return are invited to attend get-togethers, cookouts, and other functions the small-garden operators organize.

In Güstrow, Alexander Warkentin received a small parcel with a small garden house that was in some disrepair when he and his wife, Lubow, took it on. During the spring, in summer, and in the fall, hardly a day passes when the two don't at least check on the place, but mostly they spend a lot of time there, often the whole day, because they have met many friendly people among the other small gardeners who are frequently grateful to give or receive good advice. Their neighbors at first did find it a bit odd that Alexander and Lubow were planting only vegetables and fruit. Alexander thinks that the smell of his tomatoes and cucumbers always remind him of 'home,' of Kazakstan, and the taste of his garden's products just can't be duplicated in vegetables from the supermarket.

Even if one doesn't know Lubow and Alexander very well, one still gets the impression that this small piece of land, in an environment that still feels strange, provides them with a sense of security, support, and safety. In the lingo of the social workers who run the project and who occasionally visit with the gardeners: [the project] achieves stabilization and improvement of the psycho-social situation. For Caritas, the most important goal for the CARIland project is that the Aussiedler [German from Russia immigrants] do not isolate themselves from their environment and, instead, find real community in groups such as their gardening associations. The practical benefit of gardening work is pretty clear. Many Aussiedler who, because of widespread unemployment may otherwise find no structure in their lives, realize that their gardening work puts a kind of orderliness into their everyday lives. Last but not least, their work in their gardens also provides a sense of success, for example, when a seedling becomes a fully grown plant, or when even small harvests makes the work worthwhile.

In 1999, the jury that decides who should receive the annual community prize called INNOVATIO found the CARIland project to be of such a pioneering and convincing nature that it awarded the prize to Caritas Mecklenburg e.V.. Whether Viktor and Anna Huck in Berlin will ever have the pleasure of a small garden is unknown. Years ago, members of the residential management organization of Marzahn/Berlin were actually contemplating an idea similar to that of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Caritas organization, and they even had their eyes on a piece of land for the purpose. However, at that time the authorities decided instead to make the parcel part of a new road.

Our thanks to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller