Mature fruit trees are a common sight in the East Central neighborhood. Some of the trees were originally planted on the small farms that were there in Spokane’s earliest days. Amid the changes in the neighborhood, they continue to do what fruit trees do: produce a crop every summer.
Sometimes residents just don’t know what to do with the bushels of apples, pears, plums and cherries, so birds and raccoons get most of the harvest. Now fruit tree owners have an alternative to letting the fruit go to waste, and they don’t even have to lift a finger.
The East Central Neighborhood Urban Fruit Tree Harvest is a program through the Spokane Regional Health District and the Neighborhoods Matter initiative. The concept is simple: call the program and schedule a time when volunteers may come and pick the fruit. The fruit is handed out to neighborhood residents from a booth at the South Perry Farmers Market, and some is given to Second Harvest Food Bank.
A unique part of the program is that it’s spearheaded by two East Central refugee women, Nou Vang and Ma Win Tain, and staffed with volunteer refugees. There are many refugees in East Central, and Vang said many are very isolated.
“We want to get the refugees to know the neighbors,” said Vang. “That we are OK with each other. We are thankful to live in Spokane because it’s a safe place. We want to give back.”
Vang is originally from Laos and has lived in Spokane for 24 years. Tain came from Myanmar, formerly called Burma, three years ago. They share stories about how different life is in America, and how when they first moved here they were uncertain what fruit on trees behind their rental homes was edible.
“I didn’t know the plums were OK,” said Tain, laughing. “When I asked my landlord, they said, ‘Oh, go ahead and eat as many as you can.’ ”
The two women have put fliers up at South Hill grocery stores, and they are now beginning to go door to door, asking for permission to pick fruit.
“We hope people will read this and not be surprised when we knock on the door,” Vang said.
Many times, a language barrier, culture shock and traumatic memories from growing up in refugee camps make it almost impossible for refugees to assimilate on their own.
“They don’t think the neighborhood has anything for them,” said Vang, “and they are lonely.”
At the same time, many refugees want to give back to the community that is becoming their new home, but they don’t know how to go about doing that. The Urban Fruit Tree Harvest is aiming to bridge that gap by recruiting refugees to pick and distribute the fruit.
“We hope to make everyone get together and know who we all are,” Vang said.