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A miracle garden in South Salt Lake

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — Behind Martha Carlson's neatly trimmed house, K'nyaw Say Paw kneels in the dirt and places a tomato seed in the rich earth. Around her, other refugee children laugh and play in a garden that has been a boon to them, Carlson and a broader community that has taken them in.

Maybe it started with Carlson, who at 86 was too old to care for the vacant land behind her home.

"I was talking to my Father in heaven saying I can't do this anymore," she said. "I didn't know he was going to send 50 people from Burma to solve my problem."

Maybe it began with Michael Nebeker, who first thought to start a community garden as he was talking to a refugee family.

Probably the real beginning happened in Myanmar, where tens of thousands of Karen people have been driven from their homes in a conflict that has lasted for 60 years.

Utah's displaced Karen families have spent most of their lives in refugee camps in Thailand. Many of these refugees were born in those camps.

Now that they are in the States, they have a lot to learn. Most cannot speak English, and Karen translators are rare. This makes assimilating into the community very difficult.

Carlson's once-vacant land is now covered with enough raised garden beds for 29 families. They are planting fruits and vegetables, American and Asian. Each family has paid $10 for its plot, which pays for seeds and irrigation pipes.

"These people are really struggling and we want to find a way to help them," said Bob Roylance, who has worked with the Mormon Church for more than 30 years managing large farms.

The Karen refugees are making the most of the opportunity to grow some of their own food, and the community has embraced them.

"I'll be sitting here with my wife watching TV or something and they'll just pull up in the van and just pile out," said Dallin Cromer, Young Men's president of the area's Columbus Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "All the young boys, they love it; they're just the hardest-working boys you'll ever meet."

It was Cromer who approached Carlson about using her land. He also provides water from his artesian well. Nebeker's vision brought this remote corner of South Salt Lake together. Many others have donated their time and resources to provide these worn travelers a garden of their own.

"We found that pretty much everyone is willing to help," Nebeker said.

Dave Stringham of Stringham Lumber donated a tractor.

"It would never have happened if it hadn't been for that tractor," Roylance said.

The only necessity they lack is a Port-a-Potty.

"Cause you know what?" Nebeker said. "When you gotta go, you gotta go."

The more the community works together, the more their relationship with the Karen refugees blossoms.

"We just wanted them to have an opportunity to plant some vegetables and feel ownership again of skills they have been not permitted to use — to help them get some freedom back," said Linda Turkovich, the Relief Society president of the Columbus Branch where most of the refugees attend church whether they are members or not.

"It was just like a big gift," Carlson said, raising her hands toward the heavens. "I get to give them a big gift, so both of us are happy."

e-mail: ebassett@desnews.com