Refugees Find Home on Iowa Farm

| 5/24/2013 1:00:00 PM

Reposted with permission from Harvest Public Media.

On a small farm in suburban West Des Moines, Iowa, even the barn is a refugee — a historic structure relocated from nearby Valley High School. The farmers, most of them refugees, are just starting to hoe the land, each one working a 50-by-50-foot plot where they’ll grow corn, beans, cabbage, eggplant, onions, tomatoes and peppers.

One hot, sunny Saturday in May, about two dozen people lined up to receive transplants and seeds from Donna Wilterdink, the farm assistant from Lutheran Services of Iowa. She’s helping them launch Global Greens Farm, a training farm that aims to help refugees segue from growing food for their families to operating small businesses that sell produce at farmers markets, local grocery stores and to area restaurants.

Many Midwestern cities have a long history of resettling refugees. Urban areas typically have the resources to help families adjust, such as English classes and public transportation. But fertile farmland calls to those refugees who farmed in their home countries. In response, social service agencies have worked to find available land for urban refugees to cultivate. 

Several training farms have developed to help these new Americans grow food — and businesses. New Roots for Refugees in Kansas City, Kan., and Community Crops, in Lincoln, Neb., have used the same model as Global Greens, leveraging non-profit resources such as grant funding and community connections to get interested immigrants onto small plots.

On the farm, Wilterdink split apart tomato starts and handed them to Cubwa Rajabu, who now lives in Des Moines, some 8,000 miles from his native Burundi. He’ll also transplant peppers and cabbage and tuck seeds into the fertile soil. Global Greens occupies an area in the shadow of Valley Community Center, a brand-new building on 35 acres that Valley Evangelical Free Church owns. The church is just across the street and one of its congregants had the idea to connect the community center’s open space with the refugee growers.

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