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This Kansas City Program Helps Refugees Build a Future Through Work and Food

New Roots for Refugees has become a critical bridge for many refugees in the Kansas City area.

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Barely a mile north of Kansas City, Kansas, lies one of the area’s best-kept food secrets: A lush and beautiful 9-acre garden tended by farmers from vastly different walks of life. Several women and children tread through rows of crops wearing traditional thanaka paste on their faces – a thin, pale yellow paint applied in captivating designs, a custom traditional to Burmese women. On the east end of the farm, other women are working in vibrant Somali Bantu dresses, while on the border of the west edge, Bhutanese men check their transplants and weed their gardens.

Different languages and dialects crisscross the landscape, and children happily run and play among ¼-acre plots, where vegetables such as bitter melon and chin baung, more common to Southeast Asia, are farmed alongside carrots and tomatoes. The Downtown skyline hovers in the distance. This is Juniper Gardens Training Farm, home to New Roots for Refugees.

The city has become a resettlement area for refugees, with a high concentration of people from Myanmar (formerly Burma, a name which many of the refugees in Kansas City prefer) and Bhutan. After fleeing their homes, refugees who have resettled into secondary countries end up in refugee camps (for example, many people from Myanmar end up in camps in Thailand). While living in the camps, international organizations usually begin the long process of determining whether or not refugees can return to their home countries. If they can’t, most often due to abuse or persecution, then the same organizations seek asylum for them in a third country, such as Germany, Hungary, Italy or Sweden.

In the U.S., depending on the state, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement works with local or state organizations to settle displaced individuals or families. The process typically takes years, sometimes decades.

From the Ground Up

In Kansas City, Catholic Charities most often resettles “U.S.-tie cases,” or people who already have familial ties to the community. Jewish Vocational Services or Della Lamb Community Services typically handle “free cases” on the Missouri side of the city, according to Meredith Walrafen, program coordinator of New Roots for Refugees at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. Whether refugees are able to travel to their new homes with their families or alone, each case presents different challenges, both for the individuals involved and for the organizations that assist them. Many refugees have experienced long-term trauma or acute stress and are in need of counseling. Others might be very physically ill.

New Roots has become a critical bridge for many refugees in the Kansas City area, offering a connection from their old homes to their new ones through work and food. The four-year urban farming-training program’s current incarnation is the result of a decade-long partnership between Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and Cultivate Kansas City.

Catholic Charities offers related services for up to five years, including employment services, English classes and cultural orientation opportunities for the resettled refugees, and Cultivate KC is an entrepreneurially oriented urban-agriculture organization that promotes urban farming using organic practices as a way to engender environmental sustainability and community stability. The two organizations began combining efforts for New Roots after a request from a group of Somali Bantu refugee women.

“A lot of times refugee women are not able to attend all of the classes and cultural-integration events that happen [through Catholic Charities] because [they are] in charge of childcare,” Walrafen explains. “[The Somali women] said, ‘We’re feeling kind of isolated, and we would like to have a garden.’”

To that end, Catholic Charities began working with refugee women to establish a small garden at its former headquarters, the now-closed St. Benedict’s Catholic Church on Ninth Street in Kansas City, Kansas. The women grew and harvested produce there for about a year before Catholic Charities staff determined that professional agricultural experience – with a focus on climate and weather conditions in the Midwest – was needed to grow operations.

“We realized we had no institutional agricultural knowledge… we also realized there was more potential than just a community garden space,” Walrafen says. “It can be an income generator and a work space.” Staff also recognized that there was an opportunity for farmers to cultivate vegetables from home that were difficult to find in Kansas City, and in a place where the comforts of home are scarce, these things become extremely important. Cultivate KC seemed like a natural partner, and the two groups have been operating New Roots together ever since.

“We were the perfect partners to help start farm businesses,” says Alicia Ellingsworth, program manager at Juniper Gardens Training Farm and New Roots farming mentor. “Cultivate is such an entrepreneur-oriented organization… many of [the refugees] come as farmers, some of them for generations, but [being new here], they don’t know the climate… they don’t know American customers and a lot of them don’t know English. We help with techniques and connections that way, as well as with financial and business management.”

In 2008, the Wyandotte County office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agreed to lease New Roots its current 9 acres of land at essentially no cost. The acreage had previously been a part of the sprawling Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority, the oldest and largest public-housing development in the state. Many of the housing project’s two-story buildings, made of red brick with yellow siding, still stand, although they’ve been empty for years.

Today, farmers are selected based on past farming experience or their enthusiasm for the work. Weekly workshops focus on topics ranging from learning about local weather patterns, growing fruits and vegetables in a greenhouse, operating farm equipment, obtaining organic certification, wholesaling produce, setting up tax IDs to collect and pay sales taxes, and navigating the paperwork required to sell at local farmers’ markets.

At first it’s a lot for the new farmers to take in, especially when you consider the circumstances that brought them to the U.S. and the challenges they face with assimilating to a new city and culture. New Roots gives these men and women the knowledge, skills and confidence to start over, whether they are familiar with farming or not.

The program also gives refugees another connection to their native homes through the food they grow. Farmers are encouraged to plant crops that are familiar to Midwestern palates as well as staples from their home countries that might be difficult to find in the area. Winged beans, chin baung (Burmese sorrel), bitter melon (or bitter cucumber or balsamic pear), tatsoi (a salad green with a rich mustard flavor) and Thai chiles are among the crops popular with farmers who are just starting to break through at market.

Last year, New Roots farmers collectively pulled in $108,000 in revenue from sales at market, wholesale and through New Roots’ CSA program. Currently 13 of the program’s graduates are farming in the community, nine of them on their own land and the rest on leased land or in community garden spaces. If you count graduate totals in those sales, the number jumps to $178,000.

“Really, farming is something you can’t fully learn even over 20 years,” Ellingsworth says. “We give them four years to get their feet wet, to learn English and to have some guidance, workshops and field walks, as well as help getting to market. We offer a lot of opportunity, and people can take what opportunities suit them.”

In the time since the original group of farmers and employees sopped through the muddy beginnings of the Juniper Gardens farm, grading and refining the land, the New Roots program itself has evolved into an innovative, four-year “farming college,” which offers mentoring and workshops to 16 farmers per year.

Ellingsworth’s years of experience as a farm manager – including six years of managing Cultivate KC’s Gibbs Road Farm and five years as assistant farm manager at a biodynamic farm in Indiana – have well prepared her to mentor New Roots farmers. She and the farm’s longtime site manager, Sam Davis, alongside Walrafen, manage monthly volunteer events and CSA matchups, as well as vital weekly workshops for the farmers.

On the Farm

During a recent workshop, farmers (some with children in tow) begin their day sitting at picnic tables outside the Juniper Gardens greenhouse for a morning meeting. The group is segmented by language so each person can hear their respective translator. On this day, there are four: Nepalese, Burmese and Karen and Chin dialects (the latter are Burmese dialects).

Ellingsworth begins the meeting by checking in with farmers about what they’ll need for their weekly markets: baskets, rubber bands, plastic bags, a tablecloth, signs and flyers. They discuss how, with the help of signs and their farming books – which include displays, names and descriptions of all of their vegetables – they can begin to overcome the language barrier that exists between the farmers and their customers. At the mention of the language barrier, several farmers nod knowingly. Communication is often a source of frustration and anxiety for many of them, particularly those just starting out in the program.

One new farmer, originally from Burma, explains through his interpreter that he wants to be open to new people (something Ellingsworth strongly encourages), but he just doesn’t know how due to the language barrier. Not deterred, Ellingsworth and Walrafen encourage him to continue attending his English classes and to keep practicing. It will come, she explains. “Keep trying,” she says.

After the meeting, the group moves into Juniper Gardens’ lush greenhouse for a workshop. Each farmer has a long table where he or she can grow seedlings, both for planting and for selling at market. Ellingsworth picks up a plastic flat, lined with young sprouts, and shows it to the group.

“Can anyone tell me what’s wrong with this one?” she asks. “And it’s okay – mine would look like this – but what is wrong here?” The farmers look at the flat and then at one another for a moment, before someone speaks up.

“Too crowded,” says a woman standing next to Ellingsworth, who nods heartily in agreement.

“Yes,” she says. “When there are this many, they can’t get all the water and nutrients that they need. It’s time to pot up!”

Potting up, she explains, is the process of taking the tiny sprouts and splitting them into larger containers. After Ellingsworth demonstrates potting up with the help of third-year farmer SiSi Cho, site manager Sam Davis gently reminds the group not to overuse water, as it cuts into the budget for the rest of the program, including other supplies farmers might need. Students learn new and more advanced skills each week, accumulating knowledge for their futures as independent farmers.

Seeds of Change

One of New Roots’ most recent success stories is in Tula Regmi, a farmer originally from Bhutan, who is in his fourth and final year of the program. Regmi is one of many thousands of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese who were forcibly exiled from Bhutan in the 1990s. Regmi and his family lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 20 years before he was approved to seek asylum in the U.S. He is a slight man with a warm, weather-worn face. He sometimes wears a traditional Nepali dhaka topi, a colorful brimless cap that resembles a fez without the tassel, and nods knowingly as he speaks. His journey to the New Roots program has been a difficult one.

“I am very happy to be in the U.S. because I can go everywhere, whenever I want,” he says. “I can work. But in the camp I couldn’t go where I liked. We could not work… it’s like a prison.”

He remembers the date that his family came to America: Jan. 20, 2012. Regmi suffered from numerous health problems when he arrived that required immediate surgeries on his stomach, ears and nose. Catholic Charities helped him navigate the medical system and the subsequent bills. It took him six months to recover, but as his health returned, he began volunteering at Juniper Gardens. The work made him feel connected to home – while in Bhutan and in the refugee camp, Regmi farmed. He soon joined New Roots as a student. He says that the changing seasons were among the most difficult things for him to adjust to during that first year.

“The first year was very difficult because in Bhutan I did the work in a different way,” he says. “The seasons were different, and the weather was different… in Nepal where I lived, the cold is only about [50°F]. There, in winter, you can grow peppers, long beans, and they will grow back next year. But here, you cannot do that. You plant every year.”

Regmi explains that in his time with New Roots, he’s learned how to talk with customers and how American customers differ from those in Nepal.

“In Nepal, people come and shop for what they need,” he says. “Here in the market, I have learned to design the table... and if I talk to the customer politely, like, ‘Hello, how are you,’ they will come to you.”

He smiles while explaining his plans to buy a few acres of land to farm on his own once he graduates from the program. He recently purchased a house, and he brings his children to the farm with him to also learn how to farm. He repeats often that he is happy to be here.

New Roots not only connects farmers to their old and new homes through food, but also through community. Juniper Gardens will be participating in the Urban Grown Tour from June 25 to 26, a self-guided tour of 30 urban farms organized by Cultivate KC. Volunteers are also encouraged to come work at the farms on the first and second Saturday of each month or to participate in the program’s CSA, which pairs members with individual farmers. Members can then choose the produce they want to buy at their farmer’s particular farmers’ market each week. Tula Regmi, for example, operates a stand at the Waldo Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays from 2:30 to 6:30pm.

“Be open to new experiences and to meeting new people,” Ellingsworth says of New Roots’ volunteer program. “Meeting new people is work; volunteers require patience, but it ends with people helping one another.”

Just as Regmi has found a new home in America through New Roots, Ellingsworth says she strives to position all of the program’s farmers to embed themselves into the community and to ultimately make the community their own.

“[We want Kansas City] to see refugees as active, important members of the community,” she says. “[They are] growing our food. How can you be more important than to be someone who grows food for the community? That’s one of the things we keep telling our farmers – remember who you are. We want them to remember who they are and the value of what they are growing.”

For more information about New Roots for Refugees, visit newrootsforrefugees.blogspot.com.

For more information about Cultivate Kansas City, visit cultivatekc.org.

For more information about the Urban Grown Tour, visit cultivatekc.org/urbangrowntour.

April is a Kansas Citian by way of New Mexico, worker bee, freelance writer and photographer, food, music, animal and travel lover.

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