News | Local

Refugees Learn To Farm For Food And Profit

OPB | May 6, 2013 6 a.m. | Portland

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Portland is one of the cities that accepts the most refugees in the United States. Resettled refugees often struggle with providing for themselves and their families.

Sloan Chambers / OPB

Through one local non-profit, refugees can learn how to grow produce to eat, and to sell for a profit.

On a small plot of land, less than an acre, David Beller teaches a group of refugees how to cover the base of new strawberry plants with a tarp, to suppress weeds.

“So we need to pull it tight over the top, then we need to make sure that end is down.”

They roll the black plastic over the plant bed, tuck it under some dirt, then —

“We can basically cut a little slit, and put the plants through like that.”

This farm is in Southeast Portland, nestled in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Beller directs the Grower’s Alliance, which is one program under the non-profit Grow Portland. In partnership with Mercy Corps Northwest, Grower’s Alliance teaches refugees how to grow produce.

The group also teaches participants how to sell what they grow.

When Mercy Corps Northwest started helping refugees find land to farm on, the organization realized it wasn’t enough.

Sloan Chambers / OPB

“Refugees with really limited education and English proficiency had a lot of difficulties selling food. They were really motivated to grow it but selling it was difficult.”

So the organizations started providing marketing support. Now participating refugees also learn how to package their all-organic products, Beller says U.S. consumers care a lot about aesthetics.

The Grower’s Alliance distributes the food through a Community Supported Agriculture program and farmers’ markets.

Revenue from farming goes back to the farmers — as much as a few thousand dollars a year.  The money helps supplement their incomes. The farmers also get to take home a lot of fresh food to share with their friends and family.

The program has a few farm locations. The farm in Southeast focuses on refugees from Bhutan, like Manny Bharati. He recently came to America from Bhutan, after living in a refugee camp for 18 years.

He uses a hoe to do some weeding around a blackberry plot. He says the work isn’t difficult.

“This is not working, it’s garden working. It’s good.”

Bharati is a head of household, meaning he’s the main farm worker for his family. This farm is split between two families. They’re able to grow a lot of different things on this little bit of land.  David Beller lists some.

“We have red cabbage, purple cabbage, Napa cabbage.”

Sloan Chambers / OPB

About a thousand refugees relocate to Portland every year. The United Nations defines a refugee as somebody who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality or because of their political views. A refugee is further defined as somebody who lives outside the country of their nationality, and who cannot count on that country for protection.

All refugees coming into Oregon are served by the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. Margaret Malarkey is the organization’s community and donor relations manager.

Malarkey says people can live in refugee camps anywhere from 5 to 25 years.

“And then a very very small percentage, less than one percent of refugees are resettled to a different country.”

Brooke Hammend works with refugees in Oregon as a social worker. She is in her first season as assistant grower on the farm. Hammend says the people she works with have been through a lot, and are accustomed to harsh living situations.

“We were piling up scrap wood like twigs and stuff to throw in a burn pile, and they were like ‘Oh my god, in the refugee camp or in our country this would be worth so much money.”

Hammend say in addition to refugees, the program attracts part-time workers from the extended community who come to do farm work. They appreciate the opportunity, because they often live in such tiny apartments. 

“One family came, it was a grandmother a son and his wife, and then a grandson. And they came and said they just wanted to bring her mom. She gets so excited to be outside and to see the garden. And she just lit up, it was so sweet.”

One of those workers is Yokonda Quintero. Her neighbor is one of the refugee farmers from Bhutan.

Quintero came to America by herself from Nicaragua about 25 years ago. She was fleeing war. She never worked on a farm before, but she enjoys watching plants grow.

“This little, little one we put in the dirt, and it’s only been two weeks. Look at it now. It’s big.”

Quintero is grateful to have made it to the United States, and to be able to learn how to farm. She says the work hasn’t been too bad, except for one task.

“To make the onion. The onion? To put the onion one by one? Oh, that one is bad. Next day you don’t feel anything right here, only pain.”

All that work will pay off in the coming months, when the harvest begins.

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