When 53-year-old Burundian refugee Obede Nzigimana resettled in Atlanta two years ago, little reminded him of his African homeland.
Having spent 14 years in Tanzanian refugee camps, he was used to hot summers, but Georgia‘s winters were different.
“I saw snow for the first time. In my country there is no snow,” he told GlobalAtlanta.
That started a flurry of new discoveries for Mr. Nzigimana. He found out Americans spoke English – not his native Kirundi or adopted French. He also saw the hard truth that a lifetime of subsistence farming left him ill-prepared for city life.
“To live in this United States is very difficult. If you don’t have job, if you don’t have money to pay the rent, they put you outside, even with the kids,” he said through an interpreter.
Back in Africa, Mr. Nzigimana grew his own crops, but working 60-hour weeks at a poultry processing plant in Gainesville left little time for that. Besides, he lived in a small apartment with his wife and six of his nine children (three are still in Africa). Where was he to farm?
“Our Community Farm Project” has solved that dilemma, giving Mr. Nzigimana a way to use his skills while putting extra food on the table.
He was selected to oversee the plot on a converted playground at 121 Sams St. in Decatur, across from the parking lot for the Avondale Marta station.
Coordinated by Stone Mountain-based Refugee Family Services, a nonprofit that helps refugee women and children stand on their own two feet, the project was designed to allow Burundian families to carry on their traditional culture even as they learned skills that will help them become self-sufficient in the U.S.
In Burundi, women handle food production, and it’s no different here. Dressed in traditional garb, women and kids from some 20 families gather on Saturdays in Decatur to work the land. Okra, corn, tomatoes, squash, zucchini and basil grow in summer, with other crops introduced when the seasons change.
The idea for the farm emerged soon after the refugees arrived. They came from camps in Tanzania, but they hailed from Burundi, a poor African country of 8 million people just south of Rwanda and east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Most had spent as many as 15 years away from their homeland, which they fled when ethnic divisions escalated into a full-blown civil war from 1993-2005.
Once settled in Atlanta, RFS leaders began asking the Burundians what they saw themselves doing in the U.S.
“Most of those people could only envision being farmers because that’s all they knew,” said Susan Pavlin, an attorney by training who serves as the organization’s director of policy.
Now into its second growing season, the challenge is turning the farm into a sustainable enterprise with the Burundians themselves making the tough business decisions. Last fall, for instance, they had to choose whether to grow a lettuce mix to sell to local restaurants or potatoes, onions and cabbage they can eat at home.
RFS is providing training, education about local food initiatives, trips to local farmers markets and partnerships with other groups, but final decisions on the farm are left to Mr. Nzigimana and the other families.
“The best way I can really put it, although it sounds a little cheesy, is to let the process happen organically,” said Robin Chanin, who coordinates the project for Refugee Family Services.
Fortunately, the emergence of the Our Community Farm Project has coincided with a growing preference for locally grown, organic food, especially in Decatur, Ms. Chanin said.
The Burundians recently set up a booth at the Grant Park farmers market, where they sold out. They’ve also set up a farm stand on Sundays at the Atlanta Friends Meeting, a Quaker gathering in Decatur.
They never let Ms. Pavlin and Ms. Chanin forget that they want more land to expand their yields.
“We need to have very big land. We need to produce more food, for there are many women” and families to support, said Venance Ndayiragije, another farm manager with an ebullient personality. Also a Christian minister, he speaks English and serves as a sort of spokesman for the group.
The success of Our Community Farm Project has led RFS to create the Georgia Global Growers Network, which brings together refugee communities working on urban agriculture projects.
One of the network’s goals is to establish a new farmer’s market in Clarkston, a community east of Atlanta where many refugees settle in low-end apartment buildings.
While Mr. Nzigimana is excited about the farm, he stressed that refugees still face many hardships. He has trouble communicating and feels powerless to retrieve three of his children who were left behind in the Tanzanian refugee camps.
“I don’t speak English. That is very difficult for me. Sometimes I think about doing something, to produce or discover something, but I don’t see anyone who can give me advice,” he said.
GlobalAtlanta readers can donate land, seeds, tools or other supplies to the farm. They can also help by volunteering their time. For more information, view the video above or visit http://ourcommunityfarmproject.blogspot.com.
For more information on Refugee Family Services or the Global Growers Network, visit www.refugeefamilyservices.org.