Refugees sow tradition, cultivate 'healing' in St. Louis urban-farm program
The first time Jean de Dieu Sebunyenzi saw American food, he didn’t want to eat it. It was airplane food — hardly America’s finest culinary introduction.
Sebunyenzi had never been on a flight before, much less a 20-plus-hour travel marathon from Rwanda to Amsterdam to New York to his new home in St. Louis. The whole time, he ate nothing. It all looked so foreign to him.
He and his wife, Gorette, encountered a similar problem in the produce aisles of Schnucks and Aldi grocery stores.
“Without knowing the English, you would still doubt — 'Is this what I used to know?' So you would just buy it to taste it,” Sebunyenzi, 43, recalled. Many of his favorite foods simply couldn’t be found in St. Louis grocery stores. Vegetables tasted different — or worse — than the ones he’d grown in Congo, where he was born.
This May, he started growing his own food. He received six small garden plots in south St. Louis through Global Farms, an urban-agriculture project run by the International Institute. The program gives immigrants and refugees free land to farm on, in addition to seeds, tools and educational resources.
But the program needs more land.
“We’ve run out of space,” said Joel Walker, who runs Global Farms. “I do know the demand for more space is there. I believe we’ve barely tapped the potential for immigrants and refugees to have plots to farm.”
The Sebunyenzis are one of at least 35 families gardening at the program’s three urban farms this year. One farm is expanding by a quarter acre. Four families are already lined up to take those new plots.
The program began when a group of Burundian refugees approached the institute in 2008, looking to revive in St. Louis their tradition of sustenance farming. The institute leased less than a quarter acre for them in the West End neighborhood in north St. Louis. Now, the program has a total of 2 1/4 acres between three city farms.
The program has been struggling to expand further for about four years.
“There’s many more people who want larger plots — or want plots, period,” Walker said.
Right now, the program only has funding designated to support refugees. Global Farms has fewer resources for immigrants in the program who don’t have refugee status. The program receives about $30,000 a year from a Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program grant. That grant is funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Based on similar programs for refugees and immigrants in other cities, Walker believes there could be enough demand in St. Louis to fill many more acres of urban farmland.
Global Farms attempted in 2017 to develop 2 acres of land in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood in north St. Louis. But soil tests indicated the lot had unsafe levels of lead and other heavy-metal concentrations that could make food dangerous to eat.
The institute couldn’t afford to safely remediate and develop the land, so it scrapped the project.
Now, Walker is seeking affordable agricultural land to rent within a short drive of the city. But so far, the program’s options have all been too expensive, inconveniently far away or too small.
Last fall, he began working with a team at Washington University’s Design for America chapter to help find land. Walker said he hopes that partnership could turn the search around.
Adapting to new land
The program doesn’t just provide space. It also helps the gardeners learn to farm in Missouri.
Suk Sapkota, 53, has tried to grow olochoto several times since he started at Global Farms in 2014. The light-green vegetable, which Sapkota recalls growing beside roads in Bhutan, where he was born, is also called crow’s beak or slippery gourd. Some say it tastes like a green bean.
It’s a food he loved eating before 1992, when he moved to Nepal as a refugee. Sapkota couldn’t find the vegetable in any of St. Louis’ international markets, so he decided to grow his own. But so far, Missouri’s climate hasn’t cooperated with the olochoto seeds. The first frost often comes too early here and kills the plant.
That’s just one consideration even experienced farmers must make when they start gardening in Missouri.
Mang Zam discovered during his first months at Global Farms in 2011 just how different Missouri was from Myanmar, where he was born. Crops and weeds alike grow much slower there, Zam said. Back home, he could harvest okra once a week. In St. Louis, okra must be harvested every day, or else it gets too large and tough.
“If you miss one day, after two days, it’s very big. The market will say, ‘Oh, we do not want the big one!’” Zam said, chuckling.
“We have a poem in Burmese,” he said. “It means, ‘In the backyard, I have a grocery.’ It means ‘grow something.’”
Zam is in his 40s and leads a busy life, working full time and taking classes to become a nurse. But farming is a pleasurable hobby for him despite all the hard work. He said the fresh vegetables taste much better than what he can find in grocery stores.
Farming can be lucrative, too: In 2014, he sold more than $3,000 in produce to City Greens Market, a nonprofit grocery store in the Grove neighborhood.
“It takes me back home.”
Global Farms’ participants all have full-time jobs, Walker said. Most farmed as a primary job or to feed their families before immigrating to the United States. Today, families make time on the weekend to tend to their crops at Global Farms. They sometimes spend three or four hours plus travel time.
Sapkota and Zam both said their harvests at the south city farm feed their families for months. But growing familiar foods and partaking in a familiar hobby has a larger purpose.
“We feel that it’s somewhat of a healing program for people to be able to re-engage in a tradition and get their hands dirty,” said Walker.
Sapkota said that he looks forward to farming and tries to make time every week.
“This is my passion,” he said. His family grew export crops for a living back in Bhutan. Farming is hard work and time consuming; not all the crops take. But he said growing his own food makes him happy.
“I feel very fortunate to have this. It takes me back home to my previous home.”
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