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Monday, June 27, 2011

Somali Bantu refugees farm for a better life

The Virginia Tech-run Catawba Sustainability Center helps Somali Bantu refugees produce food and flowers they can sell on their way to becoming self-sustaining entrepreneurs.

Cucumbers were new to them. So were the orderly rectangular beds, the mesh plant supports, the black plastic and straw mulch to keep the weeds down.

In the beginning, it all looked so ridiculous and strange, especially the flowers. They wondered: Why bother growing something you can't eat?

But the urge to cultivate was so embedded in the DNA of the Somali Bantu refugees who have come to call this patch of Virginia Tech land their second home that all the newfangled growing methods in the world couldn't keep them from muddying their shoes.

They come daily to Juba Farm, some after working the graveyard shift laundering hospital linens or restocking grocery store shelves. Such was the draw for these former subsistence farmers, who hadn't cultivated land since civil war ravaged their native Somalia in 1991 and sent them fleeing for their lives.

Maha Mudi, 72, clutches his chest when he speaks of the good that has been wrought from this pilot project, a collaboration of refugee- and local-food-minded folk based at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center.

"Before this farm, I was just an old man; I could barely bend over or squat," Mudi said through an interpreter. "But now because I am here every day my health is good.

"If I could, I would sleep here."

Gardening to forget

They landed in Roanoke in 2004, about 200 of them, part of a national effort to resettle 12,000 of the most persecuted people in the world. Their ancestors had been kidnapped by Arab slave traders in the 19th century and, later, conscripted into forced labor by Italian colonists. By the early 1900s, 35,000 former slaves had settled into Somalia's Juba River Valley, where they eked out their corn, beans, okra and the like into a meager living.

Their food stores made them targets when the civil war broke out, and rogue militaries raided their settlements, robbing, raping and killing at will. The lucky ones walked for weeks to a Kenyan refugee camp, where they spent upward of 13 years praying that their women wouldn't be raped when they ventured out for firewood and waiting for a better life to begin.

The goal of Juba Farm, housed at the Virginia Tech-run Catawba Sustainability Center, is to help the refugees produce food and flowers they can sell on their way to becoming self-sustaining entrepreneurs. About 15 of the Roanoke Bantu take turns working the land.

With a breeze riffling her headscarf and a soundtrack of birdsong and bees, 42-year-old Hajiro Wehel seems more intent on burying scars with every flower she cuts. She has carpooled a half-hour from the Lansdowne Park public housing complex, where she spends much of her time cloistered indoors.

"You look around here, and it reminds you of home," she said, clad in a colorful dress, pajama bottoms, multiple scarves and muddy Crocs.

Home before the war, she means, before the unforgettable things. Before "the bad people would come and cut you or kill you, or force a son to sleep with his mother," she said, shaking her head.

She puts in six hours most days, as does Abdikadir Ali, 40, before his second-shift job at the Carilion laundry service. He used to grow tomatoes and corn in the harsh Juba River climes, where stepping on a thorn could result in a life-threatening infection, and praying for rain was constant.

"Back home, everything was by hand. Here, it's a lot easier," Ali said. "The best part is getting to work outside again. In America, you just don't get a sense of nature like this when you're working or you're secluded in your apartment."

They learned the nitty-gritty of growing food to sell in an eight-week growers academy taught by their program mentors, Roanoke County Extension Agent Sheri Dorn and Virginia Tech's Christy Gabbard, who directs the Catawba Sustainability Center.

Wehel remained quiet and sullen throughout the course -- to the point that Gabbard was not sure how much material she comprehended. The Somali Bantu community had appointed younger refugees to translate for Wehel and other elders, and Tech's Coalition for Refugee Resettlement, the student arm of the Pilot Street Project, provides English instruction as well.

Some of the information had to be translated twice -- from English to Kizigua, from Kizigua to Mai Mai -- depending on which translators were on hand. "It was like this giant telephone game where you never knew in the end what exactly was translated or heard," Gabbard said.

But when she and Dorn passed out certificates at the end, Wehel clearly understood the significance of the course. She was so happy that she when she went to hug Gabbard she picked her up off the ground.

Watering by hand

On Wednesday, they'll learn to arrange flowers in preparation for selling them at the Catawba Farmers Market. Faduma Guhad, a Somali-born refugee who is a rising junior at Tech and an intern with the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement, is helping them develop a logo and brochures.

"This is so good for them, I wish we had done it years ago," said Guhad, who also translates in the garden. One morning last week, she ferried questions as potential donors from an area foundation surveyed Juba Farm -- and were greeted with just-cut bouquets of purple cosmos and dianthus.

In a month or so, the produce should be in, at which point Gabbard said she hopes they'll not only be selling at the Catawba market, but also via Runner-bean.com, a virtual farmer's market operated by Roanoker Kathy O'Hara, whose customers order food a la carte from local growers.

While initial funding was cobbled together through several departments at Virginia Tech, a Charlottesville foundation called Blue Moon Fund, Roanoke County and the Bantu community itself (they pooled dollars to buy seed), organizers hope to develop a network that would allow local institutions such as schools and colleges to buy locally grown food.

Some support already comes through Tech's Institute for Critical Technology, which contributes a "smart farm" research element -- a complex system that allows for virtual watering and delivery of nutrients.

The elder Bantu initially scoffed at the idea of computerized hoses, not so much because they don't understand it but because they enjoy the process of hand-watering each plant. But Wehel's teenage son, Ibrahim, was thrilled that his parents' age-old practices might finally merge with technology, his favorite subject.

Dorn said she has come to appreciate the Bantu's emphasis on group decision-making, to the point of deciding exactly which vegetables should be planted in a small leftover space. "It takes longer, but I love the fact that everybody seems to have a role in this; it doesn't matter the age or gender," she said. "Farming empowers them in a way that bypasses all the language and cultural barriers they have."

The community hasn't yet decided how it will divide the profits, but one thing is certain, the Bantu elders said. They will hold back money so Juba Farm can buy seed again next year.

Source: The Roanoke Times

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