Saratoga County

Woman helps ravaged areas blossom

Sue Johnson can’t imagine life without a garden.

Sue Johnson can’t imagine life without a garden.

She began gardening at the age of 5 and never stopped. So when she read about the struggles of Bosnians displaced from their homes and gardens by war, she didn’t waste a lot of time thinking about how to respond.

It was the late 1990s, several years after the war — the bloodiest European conflict since World War II — ended. Yet the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina was wracked by poverty and unemployment. Many, Johnson learned, were living in refugee camps.

“I said, ‘Let’s get them seeds,’ ” recalled Johnson, while seated at the kitchen table in her house in Saratoga Springs.

She wrote to seed companies and asked for their leftover seeds. She got in touch with a woman traveling to the Bosnia-Herzegovinan village of Medjugorje, which draws thousands of religious pilgrims each year, and gave the woman seeds to distribute to residents. Then she learned about the American Friends Service Committee’s community gardening project, launched in 2000 with the goal of providing the country’s residents with places to garden.

Last year, Johnson sent more than 2,885 packets of seeds to Bosnia-Herzegovina through AFSC’s community gardening project; the group distributes the seeds to needy residents. So far this year, she’s shipped 1,711 packets of seeds and more than two dozen hand tools. She founded an organization, Seeds for Peace, to provide vegetable and flower seeds, as well as garden tools, to people in countries devastated by war and natural disaster.

The organization’s motto: “Changing the world, one garden at a time.” Johnson is working on turning Seeds for Peace into a nonprofit organization.

“This is the year it’s really taking off,” she said. “There are boxes and boxes to be shipped.”

Johnson’s house is cluttered with boxes of surplus seeds.

Her children — Anna Cherubin, 11, and Sam Cherubin, 9 — often help her sort and package seeds and tools.

“I have a hard time with human suffering,” said Johnson, a 47-year-old fitness teacher and personal trainer.

Strong connections

Johnson will take her first trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina this summer. But she’s already established strong relationships with the people who run the community gardening project.

“[Johnson] is a wonderful person,” wrote Belma Ducic, at the American Friends Service Committee branch in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in an e-mail. She said Johnson “often ships boxes with seeds of vegetables, small hand tools, candy, picture-postcards and greeting cards, media clips with photos and text about our gardens, etc.”

Photographs taken by the American Friends Service Committee show people making use of the packages from Seeds for Peace. In one photo, children are seated at a table, eating candy.

“A lot of kids had never had chocolate before,” Johnson said. “When you get photos like this and see the people you’re helping, it’s very rewarding work.”

The packages from Seeds for Peace are shipped to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and distributed to community gardens in different parts of the country. Today there are 13 gardens, and 1,239 participants; participants receive free land, tools and seeds.

Over the years, Seeds for Peace has steadily expanded.

While the primary focus remains Bosnia-Herzegovina, Johnson also sends seeds to AIDS orphans in the African countries of Uganda and Tanzania, and to two Mississippi towns.

In Waveland, Miss., the seeds go to a children’s center and a family affected by Hurricane Katrina; in Tutwiler, Miss., the seeds go to a group of nuns, who distribute them.

“I wasn’t thinking,” said Johnson, of her ever-evolving project. “I can do stuff impulsively. I have a passion for horticulture, and since having kids I’ve realized that you’ve got to help people.”

She credited her parents with teaching her how to be compassionate. “They’re both very altruistic people,” she said. “They inspired me. They set a really good example.”

Johnson sent seeds — lettuce, spinach, cucumbers and melons — to Uganda and Bosnia-Herzegovina in February, and she is about to send out more seeds — peas, beans, carrots, etc. — to Tanzania, Mississippi and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ducic said people are interested in obtaining seeds and starting gardens for several reasons: “material help, resocialization, health, work therapy.”

“During the war, all [of] the people in Sarajevo were [growing] vegetables on balconies, in the parks, in front of buildings, everywhere,” Ducic wrote. “Today, 13 years after the war, lots of people are unemployed. They don’t get enough money or any money for food or other needs.”

The signing of the Dayton peace agreement in 1995 ended the 31⁄2-year war among the country’s Serbs, Muslims and Croats. More than 250,000 people were killed and 1.8 million became refugees in a war that pitted the country’s different ethnic groups against each other.

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