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Farming Brings Refugees Closer to Home Through Food and Community

Farmers Zar Ree and Lion Wei and their whole family together at the farm.
Photo Credit: Chris Fowler/Provided by Transplanting Traditions Community Farm

Visit the farmers markets in Chapel Hill or Carrboro, North Carolina, and you competence meet racial Karen farmers from Myanmar (formerly Burma) selling onions, carrots, chard, tomatoes, radishes, and salad greens at their booths.

Piled next to these veggies is other furnish that those same farmers grew in their home country: immature melon, water spinach, Chinese okra, a medicinal cooking herb called gotu kola (Asiatic pennywort), or chin baung ywet, a immature green shaggy hibiscus accumulation also famous as roselle, a tack in Burmese cooking. All those dishes from the old country were grown alongside domestic crops on a tiny plantation 6 miles outward town.

Just outward of Chapel Hill, 32 racial Karen, Chin, and Burmese immigrant families are transforming the 5-acre nonprofit Transplanting Traditions Community Farm into a breakwater that reminds them of the war-torn homes and farms they were forced to flee. The farmers plant and grow food, accept rural training and selling support from the farm, and sell their furnish by a accumulation of outlets.


It would be elementary to call this a “farm business incubator” or a “workforce training program.” But that’s not the whole story. The farmers aren’t just doing it for the money. To make adequate to live on, many of the farmers—who pronounce singular English—have full-time night change jobs as janitors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Instead, the concentration is reduction on vocational training—the Karen mostly were farmers in their home country, too—than on complacency and health.

“Most of the farmers that come to plantation there, they didn’t come there so that they can grow furnish and have food in the home, but they do that since they feel like they’re connected to their roots and are closer to home,” says Hsar Wei, 19.

Wei, who also goes by Ree Ree, was the farm’s Refugee Youth Program partner in the summer of 2017 and facilitated a seminar at the Rooted in Community Youth Leadership Summit on food justice. She’s now a beginner at Guilford College in circuitously Greensboro, and the only one of her 5 siblings now in college. Her parents, Zarree and Lion, are farmers by day and janitors by night.

Back in Myanmar, the Weis were farmers. They were forced out of their homes by Burmese military assault in what’s deliberate the world’s longest polite war.

“Their encampment was burned down, and to ashes,” Ree Ree says.

With two immature children, the Weis fled easterly to one of the many interloper camps that dot the Thai-Burmese border. That’s where Ree Ree and two of her younger siblings were innate and lived for scarcely a decade, until the U.S. started usurpation Burmese applications for interloper status.

Since 2007, the U.S. has resettled more refugees from Burma than from any other country. Over 100,000 refugees from the Burmese dispute were certified to the U.S. from 2008 to 2015, accounting for scarcely a entertain of all U.S. refugees in that period.

The Wei family was resettled in the U.S. in 2006, after a tour identical to that of many others on the farm. But once in the U.S., their hurdles were distant from over. These interloper families have very few choices of how to make a provision in the U.S. Nearly all the households live next the misery line.

That’s where TTCF comes in.

The program began in 2010 with a extend from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Kelly Owensby, the organization’s plan manager and a ardent rancher herself, believes that much of the transformative impact of the plantation comes from its ability to take a holistic proceed to issues that many refugees face, such as miss of entrance to healthy food, hurdles to mental and earthy health, and poverty.

Ku Khu is landscape organisation manager at the 5-acre nonprofit farm. Photo from Transplanting Traditions Community Farm.

Farm manager Nicole Accordino also emphasizes that the plan impacts other people in the internal Burmese diaspora, not only the families who plantation there. A food cupboard program, for instance, buys some of the farm’s furnish and distributes it to 500 other Asian immigrants who need free, culturally informed food.

“I consider the plantation provides a clarity of purpose and autonomy,” Owensby says. From her observation, immigrants accessing supervision assistance programs can feel infirm and a clarity of being “provided for.” When families are given an event to yield for themselves, it creates a disproportion that is absolute to see, she says.

But Owensby keeps the farmers’ expectations grounded: Agriculture isn’t an easy business. Acquiring land is a outrageous separator for any determined new farmer, but even with entrance to land, TTCF hasn’t nonetheless succeeded in its idea of ensuring that farmers earn adequate income to simulate a smallest wage.

“Farming is not a high-paid pursuit at all,” Owensby says.

In many families both the husband and wife work the plantation together, infrequently with their children’s help. After they work the night change at the university and the morning on the farm, there’s little time left to pursue other opportunities, such as English classes.

“The idea is to have one of these adult family members be means to quit their pursuit and be means to just farm,” Owensby says. “They adore farming, and they adore it so much some-more than their job.”

It’s not tough to see why. The plantation is a community-driven project. Wind rustles by a strand of big-leaved banana trees. People work and speak in their local languages—S’gaw Karen for the Weis, other languages for people from other racial groups—under trellises and alfresco bamboo structures. In the summer, farmers rinse big piles of gotu kola in plastic tubs, make-up it with other furnish in boxes to send to family members as distant as Minnesota and Canada. They package it to sell to a 150-member community-supported cultivation network, and to other people in the larger interloper community.

Through these sales, TTCF farmers can earn a few thousand dollars of supplemental income a year. By not having to buy vegetables, the farmers are means to save about $80 a week, which they can use to buy gas or widen out their food stamp income so they can means some-more costly equipment like beef or fish.

Working the land the way they did in Myanmar has been profitable to the farmers’ earthy and mental health, too. According to TTCF’s feedback, every rancher reported feeling reduction highlight while operative on the farm.

One farmer, Ha Na, told the plantation managers about getting visit headaches before coming to the farm. “At the farm, we see my friends and we giggle with them a lot and we don’t have headaches anymore,” Na said.

For Na and other farmers, operative outward on a little piece of Myanmar gives them relief, and even remedy, from the hardships of their practice as refugees.

“Laughter with friends is a good medicine,” Na said.


Sammi-Jo Lee is a solutions stating novice for YES! Magazine. She is formed in Seattle, Washington, and is ardent about storytelling that uplifts the voices of marginalized people. Follow her on Twitter @_samjolee. She/her/hers.

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