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Thieves raid a refugee garden behind an Idaho church. Pastor asks for public’s help.


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The vegetable thieves were bold, striking when the staff of Hillview United Methodist Church were inside working on Wednesday morning.

They made off with about a dozen bags stuffed with ripe tomatoes — and also some cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants and peppers. They ripped whole cilantro plants out of the ground. They stole fresh food from the tables of refugee families from Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Somalia and Nepal, the Idaho Statesman reports.

“I’m a low-income person,” said Zamira Kazkov, a Russian refugee who has grown food for her family behind the church for 11 or 12 years. “I can’t even buy the (vegetable) plants. I grow them from seeds.”

She also shares her produce with friends and neighbors who struggle to make ends meet.

“If the people who stole the vegetables had come to them and said, ‘We’re hungry, we need help,’ they would have shared,” Hillview United Methodist Church Pastor Brenda Sene told the Statesman on Monday afternoon.

She said church officials believe the thieves stole the produce to resell it and hopes the public can help catch the culprits. They provided the Statesman with a copy of church surveillance video.

The church, which has about 150 members, has allowed refugee families to grow produce behind the building for about a dozen years, Sene said. There are 13 garden beds, each tended by a different family. They are not members of the church; in fact, most are Muslim.

“We want to do things to help the community,” Sene said.

She and her staff called police about the theft last week, and they spent much of Monday poring over video from church cameras. They’re not sure, but they think thieves raided the garden again on Sunday night.

Church member Gene Hochhalter handles building security. He said security became a concern at the church about three and a half years ago, when panhandlers were hitting up members as they left the first service.

Surveillance cameras were installed a couple years ago, and there’s a sign warning about the cameras right near the refugee garden.

Five people were in the group that raided the garden at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday — at least four of whom appeared to be women. They were dressed in black flowing garb that covered them from head to toe, like a burka, the surveillance video showed.

A surveillance camera at Hillview United Methodist Church captured video of a group of women who stole vegetables from the refugee garden behind the church. | Katy Moeller, Idaho Statesman

The video shows them arrive in a black SUV, possibly a Toyota RAV 4. The four women got out with plastic bags and dispersed into the garden, and the SUV drove into a back parking lot and stopped.

When a refugee associated with the garden arrived, the black SUV quickly returned, the video shows, and the women, each carrying several bags loaded with produce, piled in it before it sped off.

Sene tried to console several of the refugee gardeners Monday.

“I’m glad you’re here, and I hope we can make you feel safe again,” she told one. She said church members had donated about $500 for a chain-link fence that they plan to build around the garden.

Until they can get the fence built, they’re hoping for extra police patrols.

Church officials said they are disappointed they haven’t had any follow-up from the Boise Police Department after they spoke with a detective on the phone last week. Claudia Floria, administrative assistant at the church, said she notified police that they put the surveillance video on a DVD, but no one picked it up.

“We didn’t even report the second time … when they didn’t follow up the first time” Sene said.

The second possible theft happened at about 6:45 p.m. Sunday. That incident involved three men who arrived and left the garden in a silver sedan. They stole newly ripened tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and cucumbers.

Boise Police Department is investigating the theft.

Gulnoz Aklbova, who grows food in the refugee garden behind the Hillview United Methodist Church, surveyed damage to plants from thieves who stole produce last week. | Katy Moeller, Idaho Statesman