Refugee Farmers Find Solace
Refugees from Burundi and Nepal are working to re-establish agricultural fields next to the Winooski River in Vermont that were damaged by Tropical Storm Irene last year. Caleb Kenna for The New York Times
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
New York Times
May 19, 2012
BURLINGTON, Vt. — Unpredictability has been a life companion for Clothilde Ntahomvukiye and her fellow refugee farmers from Burundi, who were out clearing stubborn hillocks of weeds and dandelions with hand hoes the other day in a spring drizzle.
So last August, when the ferocious torrents of the Winooski River unleashed by Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the farmers’ kidney beans, maize and other crops on the cusp of the harvest, the sense of loss and disappointment was at once bewildering and familiar.
“If a baby dies, what do you do?” said Mrs. Ntahomvukiye, with a sadness many of the Burundian mothers here have experienced at least once. “You get another baby. It is the same with farming.”
She and her husband, Michele Mpambazi, are among the new Vermonters who have replanted after last summer’s devastating flood. Wearing African wrapped textile skirts and down jackets, Burundian and Somali Bantu farmers gather daily on the industrial edge of Burlington known as the Intervale, where the soil is made fertile by the fickle pearl-grey river.
On the day of the flood, Ambika Gautam, a 4 ½-foot-tall Bhutanese refugee originally from Nepal who never learned to swim, felt as if the waters would carry her downstream. Her anguished comrades yelled warnings from a bluff above the fields of the Ethan Allen Homestead, a historic site with quill pens and butter churns, which overlooks the field where the refugees grow mustard greens.
“We can plant crops next year,” recalled Sabitri Gurung, one of 30 or so farmers who were unfurling spools of white plastic trellis the other day against the damp black earth. “But we couldn’t get our friend back.”
Vermont’s 100 or so refugee farmers, from Africa and South Asia, lost an estimated $25,000 worth of vegetables and equipment in the flood, including pumps and irrigation lines.
“Our families are looking forward to becoming productive members of the community,” said Jacouba Jacob Bogre, the executive director of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, a nonprofit organization that sponsors the New Farms for New Americans project, financed by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. “So seeing the floodwaters taking the crops was not easy to bear.”
The flood was the worst to strike Vermont in 83 years, coming after the ground was saturated by heavy spring rains. It damaged some 450 commercial farms throughout the state — dairy farms, feed crop operations, vegetable growers, maple sugaring businesses — an estimated 10,000 acres in all. In some places, the topsoil washed away, with volunteers swooping in to help shovel mud out of barns. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service agency received $4.5 million in requests to restore farmland to productive use, an effort that continues, said Robert Paquin, the agency’s state executive director.
Although their modest plots of beans, amaranth and sweet potatoes do not yet yield enough income to support a household, for many refugees who initially rely on public benefits, the very act of planting — albeit in a precarious floodplain — is an anchoring force. Most were subsistence farmers in their countries of origin until their lives were repeatedly uprooted.
Vermont’s 1,200 or so African refugees began arriving 12 years ago, first from Sudan and then Bhutan and Burma. Mrs. Ntahomvukiye, 64, and her husband, 65, had been farmers in Burundi, tending the family’s bananas, cassava, coffee and sweet potatoes. In 1972, they fled the mass killings of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army, first to a refugee camp in Zaire, now Congo, and shortly afterward, to another camp in Rwanda. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide forced them back to Zaire and then across Lake Tanganyika to Tanzania.
Hunger, malnutrition and disease were ever-present in the camps. “If you had two weeks of rations it would last 11 days at most,” recalled Noel Mukiza, who speaks four languages besides Kirundi, the Burundian mother tongue. “Gardening some vegetables was a survival technique.”
In Vermont, plantains, cassava and cardamom have been replaced by tomatoes and cippolini onions. The Intervale Center, a nonprofit that helps the farmers sell some of the produce to restaurants like American Flatbread in Burlington, Community Supported Agriculture subscribers and food co-ops, also encourages refugees to experiment with best sellers like mesclun and arugula. Some have become entrepreneurs in their own right: Fatuma Malande, a Somali Bantu, has a thriving business selling her homemade samosas at several farmer’s markets.
Once filled with Irish, Italian and Quebecois families, the city’s Old North End, with its blocks of tidy wood frame houses, has been transformed anew, this time with markets like the Somali-owned Community Halal grocery, a store that has made it possible to buy frozen Australian camel meat in Vermont.
Many refugee families struggle with language barriers, poverty and unemployment while coping with the loss of family members. The association’s greenhouse in Winooski, a city next to Burlington, has become something of a town square for the new New England, where farmers from Bhutan, Burundi and Somalia meet to nurture tender shoots, a common language. In a meadow of songbirds beside the field, Ashok Dahal, a 65-year-old refugee from Bhutan, said he believes that with hard work, this summer’s crop will be the most abundant yet, helped by new soil from the flood. Like all farmers, he has optimism in his veins. “Without a garden,” he said, “it wouldn’t be home.”
Source: New York Times