Community Gardening: Bringing Sanctuary to Refugees in Tijuana

by | Jun 16, 2021 | Heartivist Of The Week

On Sunday, June 20, we celebrate World Refugee Day; an opportunity to honor those fighting for safer lives. Millions of forcibly displaced people face treacherous conditions daily, many of whom are stuck at the Mexico-United States border. Over the past several years, the United States has violated several international human rights and refugee laws, narrowing the number of migrants who qualify for protection and creating a massive humanitarian crisis at the border. Tijuana, a key destination for asylum-seekers, has over 25 migrant shelters, each struggling to supply proper resources to those forced to stay there. The current system keeps refugees in limbo, preventing them from working, learning, maintaining their roots, and truly settling in as they await entry to the United States.

One changemaker, Alex Reep, noticed this wasted potential and decided to do something about it. Reep attended the University of San Diego, located 30 minutes from the Mexican border, and first went to Tijuana to serve as a translator during the humanitarian aid crisis that occurred in 2018 after the migrant caravans arrived from Central America. She quickly noticed the prominent food insecurity and nutrition issues in the shelters she visited. She described the food as “pretty abysmal,” most of which included rotting produce, chips, and other unhealthy meals.

These observations led to the creation of The Tijuana Refugee Shelter Community Garden Project. Reep’s goal went beyond combating food insecurity; she wanted to create a safe green space where migrants, shelter residents, and children could become involved and learn. She spent time researching gardening conditions in Tijuana and strategically bought seeds to grow produce relevant to the migrants’ native cuisine. Garden produce includes cilantro, limes, mangos, tomatoes, spinach, and onions; items for everyday cooking, and staple ingredients in native recipes that help the refugees feel closer to home. The garden, positioned between a Central American shelter and a Haitian shelter, has helped feed and nourish two communities.

Beyond providing nutritious food, the garden has also accomplished Reep’s goal of creating a safe community space where migrants can reconnect with their roots. She highlighted one refugee, originally from a ranch in Michoacán, Mexico, who clearly struggled with the migration process and found sanctuary in the garden. Reep remembers her “sinking her bare feet into the dirt and working so hard.” Reep said it was clear she missed her hometown, and she was able to reconnect through her work in the garden, something she had done at home her entire life, and “feel comfortable in a space that was uncomfortable,” something many of the migrants in the garden can relate to.

“I feel like this was a really empowering experience because it just made it so clear that you can see a problem and then work to find a solution to address it,” Reep said. “I feel like now I’m much more observant of issues within my community, and I wish that more people had the opportunity to throw themselves into a community development project. It makes it so clear that things can improve and can get better as long as you feel like you can do something to change things positively.”

Something as simple as buying a few seeds, creating a community space, and showing refugees who have given up everything for a safer life that someone cares about them can make all the difference.

Reep highlighted how easily we push these issues aside, as they are struggles many United States citizens have not and will not have to face. She said the majority of her classmates at UCSD were uneducated on the conditions at the border, despite being only 30 miles away. Reep is a prime example of how one person, or a small group of people, can make a big difference, and she encourages others to do the same.

“There is so much courage involved in leaving your support networks and all that’s familiar to you to move yourself and your family to a safer situation,” she said. “Rather than pity refugees for the adversity they have faced, we must acknowledge and learn from their resiliency.”


*The garden’s daily operations are now run by CultivaYa!, a Tijuana-based, urban farming educational



Academic professionals Carla Forte Maiolino Molento and Rodrigo Morais-da-Silva founded Cell Ag Brazil at the end of 2023 with support received from The Pollination Project. The objective of the newly created association is to reflect, contribute, and promote the development of cellular agriculture in Brazil through proactive promotion and unifying actions among different audiences interested in the development, production, and commercialization of food through cell cultivation processes. 
With a seed grant, they founded the organization and designed a logo that represents their mission. They are now inviting people and organizations to participate in the association so that it gains greater relevance. 
Their members will be distributed across three chambers: 1) academia, 2) private sector, and 3) third sector and civil society. With this, they aim for diverse representation and to create a positive movement to act in different areas to promote and accelerate alternative proteins in Brazil and Latin America.
Billions of animals involved in food production in Brazil will be impacted in the medium to long term from this work. Data from IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) indicates that approximately 6.1 billion chickens, 56.5 million pigs, and 30 million cattle were slaughtered in Brazil in 2022. 
With this association, Carla and Rodrigo may help reduce the number of non-human individuals involved in food production as they help to speed up the replacement process with alternative proteins.
In this World Day of Social Justice we celebrate the transformative impact of The Pollination Project and our dedication to seeding the essential change our world needs. Since its inception, The Pollination Project has been at the forefront of empowering grassroots initiatives, providing the crucial support needed for small-scale projects to blossom into powerful agents of social change.

Our unique model of micro-granting has enabled a diverse array of projects across the globe, touching upon various facets of social justice including environmental sustainability, poverty alleviation, gender equality, and human rights. From providing clean water solutions in remote villages to empowering women through education and entrepreneurship, we always believed in the power of individual action to create a collective impact.

Each project funded is a testament to our faith in the inherent goodness and potential of every person to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of society. These initiatives not only address immediate community needs but also foster a culture of empathy, equity, and inclusiveness - essential pillars for achieving true social justice.

On this World Day of Social Justice, let's draw inspiration from the myriad projects The Pollination Project has nurtured. Their work reminds us that each small seed of kindness and action can indeed grow into a mighty force for good, paving the way for a more just and compassionate world.