Farming Brings Refugees Closer to Home Through Food and Community
Visit the farmers markets in Chapel Hill or Carrboro, North Carolina, and you might meet ethnic 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 produce that those same farmers grew in their home country: bitter melon, water spinach, Chinese okra, a medicinal cooking herb called gotu kola (Asiatic pennywort), or chin baung ywet, a sour green leafy hibiscus variety also known as roselle, a staple in Burmese cooking. All those foods from the old country were grown alongside domestic crops on a small farm 6 miles outside town.
Just outside of Chapel Hill, 32 ethnic Karen, Chin, and Burmese immigrant families are transforming the 5-acre nonprofit Transplanting Traditions Community Farm into a haven that reminds them of the war-torn homes and farms they were forced to flee. The farmers plant and grow food, receive agricultural training and marketing support from the farm, and sell their produce through a variety of outlets.
It would be simple 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 enough to live on, most of the farmers—who speak limited English—have full-time night shift jobs as janitors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Instead, the focus is less on vocational training—the Karen mostly were farmers in their home country, too—than on happiness and health.
“Most of the farmers that come to farm there, they didn’t come there so that they can grow produce and have food in the home, but they do that because 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 assistant in the summer of 2017 and facilitated a workshop at the Rooted in Community Youth Leadership Summit on food justice. She’s now a freshman at Guilford College in nearby Greensboro, and the only one of her five siblings currently 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 violence in what’s considered the world’s longest civil war.
“Their village was burned down, and to ashes,” Ree Ree says.
With two young children, the Weis fled east to one of the many refugee camps that dot the Thai-Burmese border. That’s where Ree Ree and two of her younger siblings were born and lived for nearly a decade, until the U.S. started accepting Burmese applications for refugee status.
“I think the farm provides a sense of purpose and autonomy.”
Since 2007, the U.S. has resettled more refugees from Burma than from any other country. Over 100,000 refugees from the Burmese conflict were admitted to the U.S. from 2008 to 2015, accounting for nearly a quarter of all U.S. refugees in that period.
The Wei family was resettled in the U.S. in 2006, after a journey similar to that of many others on the farm. But once in the U.S., their challenges were far from over. These refugee families have very few choices of how to make a livelihood in the U.S. Nearly all the households live below the poverty line.
That’s where TTCF comes in.
The program began in 2010 with a grant from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Kelly Owensby, the organization’s project manager and a passionate farmer herself, believes that much of the transformative impact of the farm comes from its ability to take a holistic approach to issues that many refugees face, such as lack of access to healthy food, challenges to mental and physical health, and poverty.
Farm manager Nicole Accordino also emphasizes that the project impacts other people in the local Burmese diaspora, not only the families who farm there. A food pantry program, for instance, buys some of the farm’s produce and distributes it to 500 other Asian immigrants who need free, culturally familiar food.
“I think the farm provides a sense of purpose and autonomy,” Owensby says. From her observation, immigrants accessing government assistance programs can feel helpless and a sense of being “provided for.” When families are given an opportunity to provide for themselves, it makes a difference that is powerful to see, she says.
But Owensby keeps the farmers’ expectations grounded: Agriculture isn’t an easy business. Acquiring land is a huge barrier for any aspiring new farmer, but even with access to land, TTCF hasn’t yet succeeded in its goal of ensuring that farmers earn enough money to reflect a minimum wage.
Working the land the way they did in Myanmar has been beneficial to the farmers’ physical and mental health.
“Farming is not a high-paid job at all,” Owensby says.
In most families both the husband and wife work the farm together, sometimes with their children’s help. After they work the night shift at the university and the morning on the farm, there’s little time left to pursue other opportunities, such as English classes.
“The goal is to have one of these adult family members be able to quit their job and be able to just farm,” Owensby says. “They love farming, and they love it so much more than their job.”
It’s not hard to see why. The farm is a community-driven project. Wind rustles through a strand of big-leaved banana trees. People work and talk in their native languages—S’gaw Karen for the Weis, other languages for people from other ethnic groups—under trellises and open-air bamboo structures. In the summer, farmers wash big piles of gotu kola in plastic tubs, packing it with other produce in boxes to send to family members as far as Minnesota and Canada. They package it to sell to a 150-member community-supported agriculture network, and to other people in the greater refugee 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 able to save about $80 a week, which they can use to buy gas or stretch out their food stamp money so they can afford more expensive items like meat or fish.
Working the land the way they did in Myanmar has been beneficial to the farmers’ physical and mental health, too. According to TTCF’s feedback, every farmer reported feeling less stress while working on the farm.
One farmer, Ha Na, told the farm managers about getting frequent headaches before coming to the farm. “At the farm, I see my friends and I laugh with them a lot and I don’t have headaches anymore,” Na said.
For Na and other farmers, working outside on a little piece of Myanmar gives them relief, and even remedy, from the hardships of their experiences as refugees.
“Laughter with friends is a good medicine,” Na said.