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Urban Farming in Cleveland, Ohio Fuels Assimilation Among Refugees

Kaylyn H. By Kaylyn H. Published on May 19, 2016

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On a warm, mid-afternoon day in May, refugees are preparing the soil for the busy growing season that awaits them. In one corner, a group is piling up compost that was collected from local restaurants and community members. In between two tunnel greenhouses, two refugees—one from Somalia and the other from Nepal—are meticulously raking rows of dirt and covering them with a black cloth to prevent the growth of weeds. The tasks performed on this farm are anything but unusual to the refugees, but for them, the location is foreign and oceans away from their native land.

Nestled west of downtown Cleveland on the Cuyahoga river in historic Ohio City, the Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program (REAP), an initiative of the Refugee Response, is empowering resettled refugees in Northeast Ohio to become self-sufficient through employment in agricultural, education and communication training. On this six-acre farm created in 2010, the largest urban farm in the nation, nine refugees from Nepal, Bhutan, Burundi, Somalia, and Burma perform agricultural duties that are both familiar and relatively new to them. They bring generations of farming traditions, and an appetite to survive and thrive in Cleveland, Ohio.

Darren Hamm, executive director of Refugee Response, says that unused, unoccupied urban land transformed into an urban farm is an alternative way to get refugees assimilated into the culture and also help them resettle in an urban environment.

“Nationally, what you see with refugees and immigrants is that organizations or communities allow them to farm on a given area of land.They are highly skilled, adopt wonderful practices, but they just work to connect the people and the place, which is good and it works well, but they give them some support, some business training, help sell their food, but it is all about the individual person. We try to really do it differently. We unpack this standard model and actually hire them because they need gainful employment, give them the wrap around and structure of an urban farm and the classroom. It is just as much as a work study as it is a job,” says Hamm.

The amount of time since resettlement in Northeast Ohio varies based on each refugee. Some have only been working on the Ohio City Farm for six months and others are veterans—previously working as trainees and now are farm managers or trainers themselves. Most of the refugees bring decades of farming methods and techniques, different entrepreneurial approaches to farming, and cultural produce with them, so assimilating into the culture is less daunting and overwhelming.

With the weather in Northeast Ohio taking a turn for optimal planting, the farm is robust with preparations. In the edge of the farm, closest to the backdrop of the skyline, Maggie Fitzpatrick, who is the director of agricultural empowerment, is overseeing a group of volunteers and farmers collecting and piling compost. Day in and day out, Fitzpatrick observes the daily triumphs and struggles of refugees who have the experience of farming, yet are still learning how to communicate the name of farming tools and plant names.

“The [challenges] are a mix of a few things. For people who worked in agriculture previously, the program here, provides some sort of consistency, especially when everything is so different around them. We [Refugee Response] can be one of those things that can provide some consistency and comfort while doing something they may know how to do, which gives them a certain level of confidence. I think when you are learning a new language or moving to a foreign place, there is some lack of confidence and instability so knowing what you are doing in your work is huge,” says Fitzpatrick.

When Bhutanese refugee Indra Pyakurel came to the Ohio City Farm in 2010, he says that he didn't know a lot of English, but after living over 15 years in a refugee in Nepal, Pyakurel and his family were ready for the opportunity to come to America for a better life. One that didn't involve religious persecution in his native Bhutan.

His textured hands, and sun-tainted skin are evidence he had deep association with farming both in Bhutan and during his time in the Nepalese refugee camp. His rhythmic, energized movements in the field hint to any observer he enjoys what he is doing.

“I did a lot of hands on agriculture work when I was home. I farmed differently there than I did here. Different machines here in the U.S., so now I can get more done here,” explains Pyakurel.

Throughout the conversation, he interjects with apologies that his English isn't good. But to any of his colleagues, his English is good, and an accomplishment at that. Pyakurel credits his English skills with farm managers and the English classes at Refugee Response. Last year, he celebrated a milestone associated with resettlement. On March 13, 2014, after months of studying, reading and writing, he took a one hundred question test. Pyakurel became a U.S. Citizen and as a result voted for the first time in local board of elections.

“I am grateful to be here [U.S.] with my six children and wife. I don't miss my country because this is my new country and home. I won't ever go back to the place I fled. My children are getting an education, and now I am helping my wife take the citizenship test, because the first time she failed,” Pyakurel says with a laugh.

To combat the barriers created by language, Fitzpatrick and Hamm use a lot of acting, numbers and pictures when it comes to designating daily tasks, planting,and business transactions with local restaurants and residents.

“We work on money, common knowledge information that we can build language skills on. We learn the words in their language for tools and crops to help bridge that gap. All the farming is done in English because it is really meant to promote their skills so they can grow in the field of agriculture,” Hamm says.

The amount of time each refugee spends on the farm through the apprenticeship program varies, but usually no longer than two to three years, unless some continue with the REAP program to become trainers and mentors to incoming refugees.

“Our whole mission is about a mechanism to learn and develop, not an end product. We try to give each person 40-hours a week, but when the farm season drops off in early November, the hours decrease. They are with us all year round. This is something we are working on. In the winter, they come in the classroom to work on everything. We would love to be their last employer, which we actually have done this in the past. They [refugees] really seem to thrive,” Hamm says. “They stay with us for two to three years and grow with us in that time period. We want to exit them into actual jobs. Some have went onto actual farming jobs after this. Some have went to do something totally unrelated. We'd like to see them out in the mid-level jobs because their skills and language are fully developed.”

“Here [Cleveland] is a place for urban farming especially with localized food systems and nutrition. To be able to help them grow and support them in the long run, I would love for them to be selling to the restaurants, the market stands, and we are just helping them get there. This is our big end goal,” Hamm says.

At a micro level, the refugees and the staff are growing together each season through creating a farm plan at the start of winter. With feedback from each refugee and farm managers, there is a decision of what to plant, what not to plant, what didn't sell well, and what should be change.

“It [farming] is a mutual learning process,” Fitzpatrick says.

She mentions a scenario of when refugees give their input, and their expertise in the farming process. It happened when it was time to harvest squash. She instructed everyone to pull out the squash, pile them neatly, and put the leaves and waste in the compost pile. Fitzpatrick notices the squash leaves in neat piles. She finds out that the Burmese use the leaves for soup.

“We experimented with it last year. It definitely isn't a product that all consumers are ready to jump in and buy. It is for people who are really willing to do something different. A lot of the times, we find these things out as we are going,” says Fitzpatrick.

While the Ohio City farm is relatively new, the fact that refugees from all over world come to Northeast Ohio for resettlement isn't. Since 2008, Northeast Ohio has received more than 2,500 refugees, most from areas of conflict across the world, including Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East according to Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland. Most currently, refugees are arriving from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq and Somalia. Every year, approximately 500-700 refugees arrive in Cleveland annually.

Sitting on a picnic table in the middle of the farm, Hamm points out that many people don't know this farm exists and more importantly that refugees from all over the world are resettled here trying to make it, which sometimes fuel misconceptions towards who refugees are and why there are in the city.

“Some peole absolutely still have these perceptions. I am still newer to this world, but what I see on the front side and based on my own experiences, is refugees still get blurred with immigration so the national conversation around immigrants and others coming in accessing our system usually comes at the cost of 'they are taking our jobs, they are taking our benefits' Many people think they are pulling us down,' and what you find is the exact opposite and I will only say it about refugees because with immigrants there are any variations,” explains Hamm. “With refugees, within two years, only eight percent of refugees are accessing public systems like food stamps, benefits, those kind of things. They are employed, supporting their families. They are active participants in the community.”

Since the start of the REAP initiative at the Ohio City Farm, Hamm and his staff have seen the growth of the refugees' skills and development of their language and in a short time.

“You see a weird dichotomy in the refugee world. There is an incredible ability to be self-starting. They are as hungry as anyone else to have work and stability. They just happened to dress different, have different traditions. They are as much enterprenuial and self-starting as they are supporting the community,” says Hamm.

Kaylyn is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to relocating back to the states, Kaylyn reported about humanitarian, social, cultural, and refugee-related issues in the Middle ... Show More

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