New Roots for Refugees

6/30/2011

Leaving Burma and seeking refuge in Thailand from one of (if not) the longest ongoing wars in the world, you find yourself suddenly the cook in a displaced persons camp with anywhere from 400 to 4000 mouths to feed.  You have family around because this war knows no age limit or sexual order, but rather you have always been judged by your ethnicity and a government that refuses to embrace diversity.  You quickly come to terms with the fact that the walls of this camp will be your entire world for as long as it takes for the war to end or for you to find refuge in another country; it could very well be home for the rest of your life and the lifelong home of the babies that are born around you each and every week.  If you return to Burma you will be persecuted for your ethnicity but if you venture further into Thailand, outside the border of the camp, you will tempt fate in a country that really doesn’t want you there either.  Ten long years go by and an opportunity to apply for refuge in America beckons.  Your husband and children make the journey with you, along with a friend and fellow cook.  You now find yourself in Kansas City, a very different place where communication depends on pictures and paper and pencil and the weather is as foreign as the language.  But you are given land, a place to call home that is your own, the freedom to grow and earn a living, and the opportunity to carve a niche for yourself in the burgeoning movement that is urban farming.

Your homeland has been a platform for hate and torture for most of your life.  What began as a conflict based on ethnic division, quickly escalated into political war and massive genocide that caught the attention of the entire world.  You are from Burundi but you are a long way from “home”.  Tanzania and The Congo offer little security to you as displaced persons camps in both locations have been raided and refugees killed in their sleep.  Children are displaced from parents, some not even knowing their age or region of origin.  You stuff your hopes into your application for transport to America and you are accepted but your sister isn’t and she sends her kids instead.  Suddenly, you find yourself a mother to two, one approaching adolescence, in Kansas City, a far and foreign place.  You are safe from machete raids but this does not make the transition to life in America “easy”.  You speak through pictures and facial expressions until you are given a plot of land and the tools you need to create something that is all your own which affords you a way to make friends and earn a living.  You are finally able to provide for yourself in a way that was taken away from you so long ago; the hope for which was permanently destroyed for the over 300,000 Burundians killed since this war began over 15 years ago.   

These are just two of the gripping and heroic stories of the New Roots for Refugees farmers who, through the help of Catholic Charities and Cultivate Kansas City, have dug their home in downtown Kansas City.  Something seems manageable about this new life for the refugees as they are given not just help today but guidance and preparation for tomorrow.  Each refugee is afforded a piece of land and the freedom to choose crops along with the responsibilities to maintain them, sell at market and save for the future with earnings from each week.  The program is four years and there is a lot of help from staff along the way as you begin to set the foundation for your own business. 

Time will tell, as this program is still very young, how many of these farmers will become successful entrepreneurs in Kansas City.  However, no one dismisses the success these women have already achieved in their gardens, at the market and inside themselves as they conquer emotions such as hate, fear and loss with each growing season, trusted staff and new market “friends”. 

Find the women of New Roots for Refugees at both the Saturday and Wednesday markets.  Join their CSA and build a direct relationship with a farmer as you pick up your vegetables each week.  And if nothing else, spread the word on this program and what is possible when you give someone the land and the tools to grow their own.