For Refugees Living in the U.S., These Small Farms Are Growing a Taste of Home

Programs help new residents resettle by connecting them with familiar fruits and vegetables.

(Photo: The Refugee Response/Facebook)

Oct 17, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Bitter melon was for sale at the Ohio City Farm in Cleveland for the first time this year. There was a woman from Burma, a trainee at the The Refugee Response’s Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program, on hand to give shoppers suggestions for preparing the pungent cousin of squash and cucumbers. (Chopped and sauteed with onion, she advised.) But for the immigrant and refugee shoppers at the farm, cooking bitter melon and foods such as okra, mustard greens, long beans, and red roselle is second nature. They just wanted a place to find them.

There are now agricultural programs across the country—many of which have been bolstered by federal Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program grants—aimed at transitioning people into their new lives in the States by focusing on the agrarian background shared by many refugees. But these garden plots are also meeting the demand for niche produce, such as bitter melon, providing a local market for vegetables that are staples in a refugee’s country of origin but are harder to find in the U.S. and are often sold for a premium.

REAP has been growing crops for the last four years at the six-acre Ohio City Farm. The program helps refugees during their resettlement, using arable land as a kind of classroom to train, educate, and potentially employ new residents. It’s a place where refugees can improve their English, hone marketable agricultural skills, and connect with the community.

The idea to launch the program in Cleveland came about after Margaret Fitzpatrick, the farm manager, and her colleagues realized that about 80 percent of the refugees resettling in the area had an agrarian background. “We wondered, ‘How do we start from where people are when they arrive, rather than lead them into a job where everything is new, on top of the culture and language?’ Agriculture seemed like the perfect vehicle for doing that,” Fitzpatrick said.

“People who have done something with their hands their entire life—to be able to keep that one bit of consistency is incredibly comforting to the people who come here,” she added.

The farmers at REAP this year are from Burma, Bhutan, Burundi, Somalia, and Liberia. They decided to focus on growing crops that are in demand among immigrants in the area. For the long-established communities from other areas of Asia and Africa, the challenges of newly arrived refugees may seem foreign—but they do immediately know where they can find the freshest okra and bitter melon. And that can help forge a connection.

“There’s one doctor who actually belonged to the same temple as one of our workers on the farm,” Fitzpatrick said. “He came out and took a look and was really excited about the nutritional potential because [the produce is] fresh and much better than something you can get in the store that’s shipped from Florida to Chicago to Cleveland. He also happened to write an Indian community newspaper for Ohio, so he was generous enough to put an ad about our farmstand in the paper. He was really great about telling people they could come here to find what they were looking for.”

There are grocery stores in Cleveland that cater to the city's diasporas, but from what Fitzpatrick has heard from customers, the quality just isn’t the same.

It’s much the same in Nashville: There are plenty of international grocery stores, explained Lauren Bailey, director of agricultural programs at the Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee. Access isn’t the problem.

“It’s less that they’re not able to find it and more that it’s expensive,” Bailey said. “But the crops that we’ve grown this year, they’ve been able to grow prolifically without spending a lot of money.” One enterprising gardener told Bailey he’d earned $25 from his mustard greens haul, though most take what they grow home to their own kitchen. “I sense that they’re excited to be growing, but also excited to be providing for their families,” she said.

In its first year after receiving a 2014 federal Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program grant, the Nashville program now includes a community garden, ESL instruction, and a training garden that hosts an 18-week market gardening course that’s regularly attended by refugees from Burma and Bhutan. It’s not a simple matter of the students learning from the teachers, however. “At one training garden they were growing a snake gourd, and they trellised it up a willow tree, and I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Bailey said.

Supplemental income, language practice, fresh veggies, and marketable skills are all important aspects of resettlement that are easier to quantify than some of the other benefits Bailey and Fitzpatrick have observed in the garden.

“It’s not just that it might provide income,” Bailey said, “but that it might bring health or improve their quality of life. For a lot of our gardeners, it’s a sense of ownership and pride—the work that they’re doing, and what they’re able to accomplish.”

Which brings us back to the Burmese woman selling bitter melon to bemused first-time customers on market day at the Ohio City Farm.

“People are always asking, ‘Oh my gosh, what is that?’ ” Fitzpatrick said. “She was very shy at first, but now she’s not only telling them what it is, but how she prepares it. It’s a testament to her confidence.”