New Roots for Refugees cultivates hope in a corner of the metro 

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Photo by Barrett Emke

A small pile of wood scraps and four green stakes stand guard over a water pump at the end of a driveway on a dead-end street in Northeast Kansas City. A few hundred feet onto the property, the driveway gives way to muddy ruts, still wet from late-May storms.

A woman walks toward the backyard of a low-slung brick home. She wears green rubber waders that sink nearly an inch into the mud. Her fingers trace the air next to a dozen peach- and cherry-tree saplings — signs of life at the beginning of this 3-acre farm, which backs up to nearly every house on the block.

"Everything is very little," says Beh Paw Gaw, who runs Ki Koko Farm with her sister, Pay Lay. She gestures to rows of kale, chard, cilantro and scallions. "But the sun comes. It will get better."

Pay Lay nods, holding the end of her sarong to keep it out of the mud. They stood in this same field two years ago, surrounded by thickets of discarded tree branches and enough illegally dumped tires to outfit a used-car lot. They hauled away the tires and burned the branches; three blackened piles remain in a triangle around the garden. A severe allergic reaction to poison ivy put Beh Paw Gaw in the hospital. Preparing this land hasn't been easy for the Burmese sisters. But coming here, they've left behind something far more harsh: the refugee camp in Thailand where they fled following the civil war that tore through their home country.

Gaw and Lay are two of the seven graduates of the New Roots for Refugees program, a joint effort by Cultivate Kansas City and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas City to teach refugees how to farm and how to sell what they produce. Since the four-year program started eight years ago, it has grown into a nearly 9-acre training farm, with a $200,000 annual budget and a current enrollment of 17 farmers.

Catholic Charities estimates that, from 2007 through 2011, 2,218 refugees from 28 ethnic groups arrived in Johnson and Wyandotte counties. Roughly half of those refugees have come from Burma.

Many of the male refugees are now part of the work force at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri. Hundreds of men, most of whom had never seen a factory before they were hired at the slaughterhouse, make the daily 120-mile round-trip commute, returning home as late as 3 a.m. Their wives and sisters have found a different path, with New Roots, at the intersection of First Street and Richmond.

"This bridges the gap between refugees and Americans," says Meredith Walrafen, a 23-year-old program assistant with New Roots. "It uses the skills that people have, just in a different setting. You have all these different communities and language groups in one place."

At Juniper Gardens Training Farm, six or seven translators are often among the 20 people on hand during biweekly problem-solving sessions. Seed packets are labeled with pictures. People on the farm use their hands for talking as much as for tilling, communicating in the shorthand of agriculture.

"You put a farm and a bunch of people in the same place, and you can really accelerate the learning curve. By seeing what people do, you learn faster," says Cultivate Kansas City co-founder and executive director Katherine Kelly.

Each farmer works a quarter-acre plot; there also are 30 20-foot-square community-garden plots. Atop a hill that runs the length of the property is a shipping container that serves as a place for tool storage, a seed bank, and a cooler for produce that has been picked for market. The farmers pay for nothing in their first year, instead trading paper "Juniper bucks." By the fourth year, farmers are covering their own costs, from water to market fees, using money they've set aside in a checking account (which New Roots has helped them open). The farmers sold $125,000 of produce — radishes, dill, potatoes, hot peppers and other vegetables and herbs, grown organically — at market in 2012.

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