A woman’s death was almost overlooked until friends gathered to remember her life

Ka Xiong was no taller than 5 feet. Her garden hoe matched her height.

At 79, she turned up the soil at Elmwood’s Peace & Plenty Community Garden, where she tended a piece of land, growing winter melon, lemongrass, hot peppers, squash, eggplant, castor beans and lilies.

With a straw backpack she picked the vegetables and stowed them away. Sometimes she gave them to others, like Emily Ferrier, who in return shared her own freshly cut flowers.

The friendly face becomes Jane Doe

At around 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 6, Xiong was hit by a Dodge Durango while crossing Potters Avenue at Baxter Street, eight blocks from her property and about five blocks from her home. She was taken to Rhode Island Hospital in critical condition, but because she had no ID and didn’t speak much English, the familiar face of the community garden suddenly went without a name and became Jane Doe instead.

The Providence Journal received a police report on Thursday with the first official details of her death.

According to the report, the 27-year-old driver said he hadn’t seen Xiong and wasn’t even sure if he hit her. Police said in the report they saw “a stain” on the hood of the car, suggesting he had actually hit Xiong. Two witnesses prepared written statements to corroborate the events. The police issued a subpoena to the driver for not driving carefully.

The death was not reported in the media that day. One of her fellow gardeners felt that her death was overlooked because of her identity.

“If she was a white person from the East Side, I think that would be in the news,” said Doug Victor, a garden coordinator. “But it wasn’t her.”

Who was Ka Xiong?

Xiong was a Hmong refugee initially residing in Laos, where she was married, had a daughter and later lost her husband. In 1988 she moved to Thailand, then came to Providence in 1990 and used the resources of the Dorcas International Institute, which helps migrants settle, find jobs and obtain citizenship. Such details were shared by her brother Shoua Leng, whose daughter was able to translate when a reporter asked questions.

Small acts of generosity, especially in the community garden, were Xiong’s way. As COVID-19 consumed the world in sickness and fear, Xiong gave Ferrier seeds to grow bitter lemon, an immune-boosting plant.

On one occasion, Xiong’s problem-solving nature led her to struggle against a tree blocking sunlight from her property.

“Once I went into the garden and she had assembled all the benches and tables in the garden, stacked them on top of each other so she could climb the tree and was up in the tree cutting branches.” Said Ferrier. “I just arrived and she was dangling from this tree.”

Xiong was so memorable that Ferrier regularly narrated the woman’s stories, calling her “a background figure in my life since I moved to Providence.”

“I think I’ve told about her to every person I’ve spoken to about the garden,” Ferrier said.

Victor recalls that in her interactions with gardeners, Xiong was able to teach them how to plant seeds and take care of their crops without words.

“I think this is a story that also tells another story,” Victor said. “It tells a story about immigration. It tells a story about the prevailing culture. It tells a story about historical legacies. But it’s a story about Ka and the impact a woman has on an entire community.”

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