Bhutanese refugees back to the soil in Mount Oliver

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .



An acre of borough land in Mount Oliver’s Transverse Park is bringing long-time residents together with Bhutanese immigrants growing fruit and vegetables.

 For some, the chance to garden reconnects them with the agrarian culture that had grounded them and their forebears in southern Bhutan.

Thousands of ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan became rootless when they were purged by the Bhutanese government starting in 1989. Many settled into refugee camps in Nepal. 

Pema Tshering Tamang, 25, spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, ”where we had a small garden” he said. “I had banana trees.”

Now he is helping other Bhutanese men and women establish vegetable plots in Mount Oliver.

One recent afternoon, a group of about 25 gardeners, including some native Pittsburghers, turned out to plant 10 fruit trees donated by Pennsylvania American Water.

The newly established Mount Oliver Community Garden was chosen as the latest Allegheny Grows project with county funding and technical, educational and material support from Grow Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

The water company’s long-time sponsorship of conservancy projects coincided with the borough’s application to the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development. The county funds one or two sites that the conservancy and Grow Pittsburgh choose each year.

"Pennsylvania American Water called to say they wanted to plant fruit trees and I immediately thought of this site," said Judy Wagner, senior director of the conservancy's community gardens program. "We were especially excited about the immigrant community connection."

There are 64 garden plots, each one 10-by-20 feet. 

A resident who had learned about and urged the borough to apply to the Allegheny Grows project, “also suggested we include the Bhutanese community,” said Rick Hopkinson, the borough’s projects manager. “We have about 70 [Bhutanese] families and we had overwhelming interest. They are gardeners by trade but have no feasible way to garden living in apartments.” 

About four years ago, social service agencies settled hundreds of Bhutanese refugees from relocation camps in Nepal in several communities, mostly in Carrick, Mount Oliver, Brentwood and Whitehall. 

The Allegheny Grows project, as well as Grow Pittsburgh’s gardens in the city, get technical, material and educational support for two years from the conservancy and Grow Pittsburgh “in order to build capacity,” Mr. Hopkinson said. “Hopefully, we will also be building community.”

Photo by Kristen Wishon courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.