On a morning near dripping with humidity, Phun Thang crouched in the warm earth before a line of short leafy plants. He parted the stems of one, revealing a cluster of green vegetables, about the size and shape of golf balls.
As the blazing sun climbed slowly overhead, Thang smiled.
Samtok, also called African eggplant, isn’t typically grown in America. But there it was, flourishing on a small plot of land across from a health care facility in Frederick, surrounded by the thick lush leaves of bitter gourd plants and other types of vegetation Thang once grew in Myanmar.
“It is my favorite,” he said. “My first favorite.”
For nearly a decade, Thang and other members of Frederick’s small, tight-knit community of Burmese refugees have nurtured a piece of their home country in Maryland by way of a collection of gardens. From the end of May until the weather gets too cold, they fill the earth with seeds from the same plants they used to raise an ocean away. During these months, some of these gardeners subsist mainly off of the vegetables and leafy greens they grow themselves, only making trips to the grocery store to purchase meat.
Between 2008 and 2017, 313 refugees from Myanmar arrived in Frederick, according to reporting from the Frederick News-Post in 2017. Many, like Thang, are from Chin, a rural and mountainous state in the northwest corner of the country, located along the border of Bangladesh and the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram. They traveled more than 8,000 miles, leaving their families and their homes behind, to flee persecution from the country’s army and military government.
Thang, a former political science and international relations professor, arrived in Frederick in 2004 and began working at the city’s BP Solar plant, which ceased manufacturing in 2010. His niece, Thiam Uk, and her husband, Tin Uk, came to the county a few years later, arriving in 2011.
Before arriving in the country, Thiam said many Burmese refugees believe everything will come easily once they are in America. But there is still plenty to worry about in Frederick, she said.
Even so, when she steps foot in the garden she cares for with her husband, that stress seems to wash away.
That’s also true for others who have gardens nearby on the property adjacent to the Frederick News-Post, including women in their 70s, who are happy to work the earth even when the weather is hot and sunny.
“It’s like a second home for them,” Thiam explained.
Thang and the Uk family started gardening on a plot off of Butterfly Lane in 2012 with a handful of other families from the Falam Baptist Church, which Thang helped form shortly after he arrived in Frederick. Later, a few families — including Thiam and Tin — started planting in the community garden in front of The News-Post. Then, two years ago, the garden’s manager, David Muns, set aside about 20 square feet for the families on the land next to the newspaper’s offices.
Soon, he increased their allotted land to 40 square feet. Then 60 square feet.
“David is very good to me,” Tin said, grinning broadly as Thiam chuckled merrily.
“He said, ‘OK, you did good,’” she recalled, eyes crinkling up in a sunny smile. “‘You did a good job.’”
Now, about 20 families from the Falam Baptist Church have gardens on a 2-acre plot across the street from Autumn Lake Healthcare, a center that provides short-term and long-term care, among other services, and is located a parking lot away from the newspaper’s offices.
Land that was once an empty field is now filled with tomatoes, spicy peppers, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers and corn. Seeing the gardens make the patients and staff members at Autumn Lake so happy, Thiam said.
“Now, everything is green,” she said.
But the gardens have other — more fuzzy — fans, too. Critters such as groundhogs, deer and rabbits help themselves to mid-afternoon snacks in the field, munching on the leaves of Thiam and Tin’s pumpkin plants and leaving tiny bite marks in their cucumbers. On a recent Sunday, a slimy little bug inched up a leaf on one of Thang’s beloved samtok plants.
He may have looked harmless, but Thang knew better.
“He can eat the whole leaf,” he explained. “He is the enemy of this plant.”
Luckily, Thang is often close by to defend the samtok plants. He lives within walking distance of the plot and comes by most days after work, like many of his fellow gardeners. But Thiam works long hours at Thermo Fisher, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. So, during the week, it’s mostly up to her husband and two children to care for their plants.
Any time Thiam is free during the weekend, though, she is in the garden. She kneels before tall plants where long, skinny green beans grow and walks past stalks of corn with pink tufts of silk hanging from their husks.
It’s not Myanmar. But in a city thousands of miles from her mom and the place where she grew up, it’s the closest she can get.