The Refugee Farming Project – Teach-out Reportback

by Erica Bacon

[See what’s new at the Refugee Farming Project by visiting their Blog!]

“Help us give our best to life and make the Earth a little more beautiful for having lived on it”, goes an excerpt from a prayer written by Richard St. Barbe Baker. Since reading it a few weeks ago, this quote has become a mantra that continues to accompany me in my travels and was especially resonating during our Teach-out to the Refugee Farm Project on Saturday, where a community of farmers in Auburn are doing their part to cultivate beauty by growing food organically and selling their produce, at very reasonable prices, to residents of south King county.

The Refugee Farming Project operates on ten acres, five of which are farmed by the group of Burundi Refugees that we worked with and the other five by a group of Somali-Bantu refugees. The project was initiated last spring by the Burundian community, with the help of Burst for Prosperity, an organization committed to bringing resources that create lasting change to low-income communities. Burst was able to offer the community a two year grant and helps with language training and skills building aid so that they can develop economic and job opportunities. The goal is for the fifteen Burundian refugee farmers involved in the project to sell the produce at markets; supporting themselves, their families, and their communities through the knowledge set and skills that transcend language and cultural barriers: growing food. As an added benefit, the farmers have access to nourishing fresh produce – the fruits of their labor literally feed them.

The Burundian and Somali-Bantu farmers have coordinated an alternating selling schedule at their farm stand. It was there that Serges Hakizimana, a Burundian community leader and passionate farmer, greeted myself and 11 other CAGJ volunteers. Serges filled us in about the farms projects history and its’ trials and tribulations thus far. Last year when the Burundians began the project they grew primarily corn, beans and potatoes. As is the case with most farm-business endeavors, the first year presented many challenges and they ended up giving much of their produce away and, devastatingly, discarded over 3,000 pounds of perfectly good corn and potatoes and over an acre of beans. This year they agreed to diversify their crop base to include a wider variety of foods that might sell better at the markets. Available at their farm stand currently are several varieties of lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, onions, and the most adorable beets that I have ever seen! Along with growing a wide variety of vegetables and fruits (tomatoes and the like) they are also growing some more traditional African crops such as Amaranth and Aubergin, a variety of eggplant.

We toured through great expanses of bean, lettuce and potato plants as we made or way to the vast sea of tomatoes, where we settled in for the day to pull the suckers from the plants. Tomato suckers are side-shoots that appear between the main stem and the branch of a tomato plant; removing them allows the plant to put more energy into the existing branches so that they can bear more and bigger fruits. It was a meditative job and while we worked, we were able to ask more questions and continue to listen to Serges’ captivating stories about his life experiences and those of the Burundi refugee community.

Hundreds of thousands of Burundian people have been in refugee camps since 1972. Serges, a second generation refugee, was actually born in the camps. Like many Burundian refugees, he has been transplanted from country to country several times and has lived in and has lived in Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic republic of Congo, to name a few. In 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees informed thousands of Burundians that they were to be relocated to the United States, a country that many knew little about. They were told that the US was “like paradise” and that they would have no worries once they were here. They were promised rent and food assistance for eight months. Once here, they were monetarily assisted for only about three of those eight months. They were provided with few other services by the US or UNHCR during that time and virtually no assistance afterward. The Burundi were led to believe that there would be assistance with education and employment acquisition and training; in reality, just a few of those who were able to speak some English were helped to find jobs and only an estimated 16% of the community is employed.

While listening to Serges share his personal experience of being uprooted and shuffled around, I felt my eyes open to the truth that here in King County, and elsewhere in the US, refugee communities are isolated and their stories largely unknown. It has largely been the assistance from Burst for Prosperity and a few dedicated volunteers like Lydia Caudill that has helped this community to pursue of life, liberty, and justice on this planet. Lydia’s senior project at the University of Washington was focused on supporting the Refugee Farming Project (many of whom don’t speak English) in selling at the markets. She has continued to remain involved even after completing her coursework. This year, however, is the farm’s last with financial assistance from Burst. Although the Refugee Farming Project aspires to partner with Seattle Tilth in the coming year, much additional support is needed. Their dream is to build a strong customer base that will allow their business to succeed, and ultimately to be able to sustain themselves solely through farm work.

After removing tomato suckers until our fingers became strangely iridescent in color and unfamiliarly reptilian and scaly in texture (a phenomenon you might only experience after spending a day up to your arms in tomatoes) we stopped to have lunch among the tall grasses and juvenile carrots and reflect on the day. What the Burundi and Somali-Bantu farmers have accomplished in less than two years is inspiring. They have created life, beauty, and sustenance where there was none. The farm is very clearly well loved by the community and the crops are doing (and tasting!) great.

There are, however, still many challenges: last month, the Farming Project’s tool shed was broken into and all of their tools, including two roto-tillers, were taken; many members of the community want to take ESL classes offered at Highline Community College, but cannot access childcare; there is a lot of competition from other farms selling similar produce in the area, and marketing as well as finding new places to sell remains difficult. Other, more some specific needs of the Refugee community include career training and education, and scholarships for those about to finish high school; support in cultivating their own culture and learning first to read and write in their native language as well as in ESL; assistance with day-care for the sewing project that the women have begun; the list goes on….

As a component of each Teach-out, CAGJ calls on its’ participants and our community to take action. When I first learned of the robbery (before visiting the farm or meeting members of the community) I was, naturally, deeply disturbed. To be robbed of anything is an incredibly violating experience that no one should have to go through; but to be robbed of the tools that provide sustenance and nourishment to a community is devastating on so many other levels. The first thing that I thought was, is there anything that we can do to help? The answer is, of course, yes. When our community needs help, there is always something that we can do. I say our community because now, after visiting this farm, or reading about it, or possibly hearing about it from a friend, we realize that we are all connected. We may live in a society that has been conditioned into believing that “community” is reduced to close friends and family members, that the interests of our nuclear lives and families are the only priorities that we have time to concern ourselves with, but we are not fools. While it is natural to think about the welfare of ourselves and close friends and family, it is collective consciousness that affects us all at the deepest, most intangible level. Now is the time to open our eyes and our hearts to the greater circles and concepts of community, locally and globally.

As a community, on whatever scale, we should never stop thinking about ways that we can continue to support and care for one another. We ended the day by discussing, together, ways that we can continue to take action to support the Refugee Farm Project. Some ideas that we came up with include volunteer work on the farm, volunteering with the farmers at markets, assistance with English language skills that will help with selling produce at markets, helping with outreach and marketing by finding new places to sell, assistance with childcare, and even throwing a benefit/ fundraising party together in collaboration with other local organizations with cultural justice missions.

We can each do something; together, we can help change everything. A realization that we are all as deeply interconnected and inter-dependant as tomatoes to soil, water and sunshine is the only thing that will truly allow us to move forward. It is, in fact, giving our best to life through rebuilding a sense of community and re-connecting with a sense of place; through constantly thinking of ways that we can all better support one another and nurture the Earth as a whole, that we can continue to make the world a little more beautiful. Help us.

If you would like to support the Refugee Farming Project, contact Serges Hakizimana at sergesh [at] chs-wa.org

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