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Refugees Plant The Seeds Of A New Community In Kansas City

This article was originally posted on npr.org

Farming is nothing new to Kansas. But now it’s drawing in a new community that’s trying to bridge the divide between life in another country and one in the United States.

New Roots for Refugees encourages refugees to become independent through farming.

Courtesy of Cultivate Kansas City

In the midst of boxy yellow and brown public housing, beyond the highway and past empty grain elevators, sits Juniper Farm. It’s spread over nine acres on the Kansas side of Kansas City.

As their children play on the grassy knoll behind us, four women sit at a plastic picnic table speaking in Karen, a language spoken in parts of Myanmar.

They’re students at a program called New Roots for Refugees. The program aims to teach the basics and business of farming to refugees over the course of four years. At the end, many of the graduates are ready to start farms of their own.

It’s a joint effort between Catholic Charities and Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit that encourages locally-grown food and urban agriculture.

“It is like practical education here. So I love it very much,” says Dhan Rai, a first-year farmer from Bhutan.

Many of the men and women at New Roots come from Myanmar or Bhutan. Some were farmers in their homelands. But farming on the outskirts of Kansas City is different: the land, the crops and even the weather.

Sisi Cho is a third-year farmer at New Roots and a refugee from Myanmar. She was the first New Roots farmer to sell produce this year at the KC Eat Local and Organic Expo in early April.

Lily Siebert/Courtesy of Cultivate Kansas City

As a train passes, Sisi Cho plants zucchini seeds and baby heads of kale in her quarter-acre plot behind the greenhouse. Before this she was living in a refugee camp in Malaysia.

“America government is good. No separate color or race. Everything good,” she says.

Earlier this month she sold spinach, spring garlic and radishes at a local farmers market. She’s the first New Roots farmer to sell produce this season.

The refugees here fled ethnic violence and military oppression that made their people victims of torture, systemic rape and forced labor. In addition to Bhutan and Myanmar, refugees from Somalia, Burundi and Sudan have taken part in the program.

For some, escape meant enduring years in cramped refugee camps. Entire families shared one room shelters, covered with roofs made of plastic sheeting.

Many who’ve come here are happy to have escaped violence. But adapting to life in a new country, with a different language and customs, is still difficult. Many refugees struggle economically.

So the New Roots program aims to teach refugees more than just farming.

Sam Davis is a site manager at the farm. He teaches refugees how to farm, how to manage a small business, and how to navigate other obstacles of integrating into American society.

Sam Davis is a site manager at Juniper Farm. He sits in the greenhouse, where the refugees learn how to get an early start on the growing season.

Oluwakemi Aladesuyi/NPR

“Mr. Sam,” as the students call him, says he can understand feeling out of place. His family moved here from Arkansas about 60 years ago. “We were Americans coming to Kansas … but it was like going to another country. You had to fight your way to school, you had to fight your way home,” he laughs.

Fitting in was hard for Davis because he spoke a different dialect. It’s one way he relates to the refugees. “The language I don’t understand. The expression most of the time I understand,” he says. “But that’s actually how I communicate with them. And I don’t give up.”

It’s that spirit that encourages August Gaw. She’s 25 years old and often translates for her mother, Beh paw Gaw, who graduated from New Roots a few years ago. “Even if they don’t know the English that much, when they speak, Sam will understand my mom,” she says.

August used to come here to help her mother. But now Beh paw has her own 3-acre farm which she runs with her sister. Last year the operation made more than $10,000. The potential to make money is important; many refugee families live below the poverty level.

Davis says New Roots benefits more people than just the farmers. “They can keep doing what they did in their homeland,” he says. “And if they get enough land it continues to go on. It feeds back into the community, the neighborhood.”

And creating that sense of community, of establishing “new roots,” is another goal of the program.

“My mom came to work here and then she met other people here,” says August Gaw. “And we feel very close to each other and much better.”

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