Emmanuel: You should not neglect farm because it is like farm is the mother of people. Without farm, no food. Without farm, no money. Even if you see people in the offices, in the airplanes, everywhere, know that without food, they can't ... they cannot fly. They cannot go to the office. The soil is the mother of everybody. That's what I teach to them, and they agree because they can't go to school without something in the stomach.
Grace Gregory: On a hot and sticky day in August, I made my way out of the city of Syracuse, New York, and into the neighboring town of Kirkville to visit a farm. Stretching out for 32 abundant acres, a wide array of crops grow here, including hops, beans, peaches, and every vegetable you can think of. But our story is about a community garden that lives in one corner of the land and is maintained by a group of refugee families that live in Syracuse through a nonprofit program called Salt City Harvest.
Unless you're from Syracuse, you probably didn't know that the city is home to one of the largest per capita refugee populations in the United States.
Emmanuel: I mean, since 1996 up to 2008, that's when I left Africa and I came here to the USA, Syracuse, New York, and it is almost nine years.
Manika: I'm come to the United States in 2013, November 21.
Grace Gregory: Data from the United Nations Refugee Agency tells us that we are now witnessing the highest levels of displaced people on record. The present number of refugees worldwide is unprecedented at 22.5 million, and it is likely that there are yet more refugees unaccounted for.
Of the refugees resettled in the United States in the fiscal 2016 year, 5,026 of them were placed in the state of New York, the third largest number of refugees to be taken in by one state. Texas and California came in first and second, settling nearly 8,000 refugees each.
Once in New York, many refugees are placed in Onondaga County due in large part to the county's two resettlement agencies, InterFaith Works and Catholic Charities. Within Onondaga County, many refugees are placed in Syracuse in the north side of the city. They have come from all over the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Bhutan, Somalia. For the most part, their English is not advanced and, for this reason, they have a very difficult time finding jobs despite being smart and skilled and hard working.
Grace Gregory: What has been most challenging about adjusting to this new place?
Pashupati (Translator): [Foreign language]
Two Female Voices: [Foreign language]
Pashupati (Translator): Yeah, they're saying the barrier of the language.
Grace Gregory: Language?
Female Voice: [Foreign language]
Grace Gregory: In 2013, the refugee community of Syracuse got connected with the farm through a local ESL teacher, initiating the Salt City Harvest nonprofit program. For an overview of the history of both the farm and the nonprofit program, I'll turn to Ianthe, who goes by "Ice." It was through Ice that End Pain first got connected with the Salt City Harvest farm. She gave me my initial tour of the property, told me the history of the program, and how all the pieces of this operation fit together.
Ianthe (“Ice”): Yeah, 2013 is the first season that this began. This property is owned by a family called the Letcher Family. So the husband and wife, Teresa and Skip, own this land and their youngest son Dylan... this land kind of sat vacant, he got really interested in farming, and he started cultivating the land for sort of no reason and then said, "Oh my gosh, I have all this food. What am I going to do with it?"
So, he started donating and the family started donating to different food banks in Syracuse in the north side, which is where a lot of minorities are placed, where a lot of the food banks are. There's a huge saturation of need for food. He started growing so much food that even the food banks couldn't accept it all.
My understanding is that's when they got connected with the refugee population through a school called Bob's School, which is an English teaching class... teaching school on the north side, again, where a lot of the refugees live. They became really attached to a teacher, Rosalyn Jiggs Johnson, who was the president of our board for quite a few years. She would kind of coordinate with the adult refugees through her teaching classes to get them out here.
For the past 3 and a half years, I believe, we've been busing them out here two or three times a week, about five or six months a year. Basically, it's a work exchange, so they help us maintain the land, grow crops. They have a huge say in what types of crops we grow, how it's done and all that, and then in return, about 85-90% of the food we grow in poundage goes directly to them.
Grace Gregory: Ice is the farm manager, which means she coordinates with the refugees asking them:
Ianthe (“Ice”): What kind of crops do you want to grow? What do you want to grow less of from last season? How much of things? What varieties?
Grace Gregory: She then takes that information and organizes it into a planting map, deciding where, when, and how much of each crop will be planted. Ice describing the program as a "work exchange" is a glaring example of her modesty. This collaboration is much greater than one of labor. It is a collaboration of culture, knowledge and experience, a diverse set of approaches combining towards one common goal.
Female Voice: This one is ready. This one is not ready. Maybe next week.
Grace Gregory: How can you tell? You just know?
Female Voice: This is small. This is big. This inside seed is too big but here, it's nothing. It's small. Inside is sick.
Emmanuel: In Africa, it was, bananas, cassava, potatoes, beans, but here again, you can’t grow bananas, you can’t grow cassava, only corn and beans, peas, potatoes...
Grace Gregory: The collaboration taking place in this garden is centered around nourishment and healing. For one, it is a space where the language barrier faced by many refugees in their everyday lives is not debilitating, where the common language of growing food and nurturing the land is sufficient.
Pashupati (Translator): The main thing is they want to see new places, and they want to work with other people, so if they work with other people like American people, they can increase their language, and they can know what type of agricultures are doing in America. They want to learn, like if they work here, they didn't need good English. They can just ... if they show the way, they can just follow the exactly same way. There is no problem of English out here because they can understand by their actions and their words. They will see here. Same thing they have done here.
Grace Gregory: But further than that, the garden is a slice of home. Refugees can grow food from their cultures, food they may not be able to find in the grocery stores of Syracuse. What's more, the practice of farming is in the cultural DNA of many of the refugees who participate in the garden. Many of them were farmers before being displaced from their countries.
For example, the Lhotshampa people, the ethnic group that made up one-sixth of Bhutan's population before citizenship laws that discriminated against them were enforced by the government, originally migrated from Nepal to Bhutan to agriculturally develop the southern region of the country, which today, is the country's major food-producing region.
Manika: My country right now is a farmer, farming.
Grace Gregory: So that's what you know? That's what you're familiar with?
Manika: And how to grow vegetable and everything I know, I'm interested, but no is space.
Grace Gregory: You just heard Manika, who came to the US from Bhutan in 2013. She said, "I'm interested but no space." For people like Manika who have skills and experience farming but cannot find that kind of work in Syracuse, their time spent in the community garden at Salt City Harvest is comforting and important to them, especially for those who have worked for various companies since coming to this country but had difficulty assimilating to those environments.
Grace Gregory: Would you mind asking them what their favorite part about this community is?
Pashupati (Translator): [Foreign language]
Female Voice: [Foreign language]
Pashupati (Translator): Actually it is bad to stay idly at home because they need exercise. In their previous country, they used to work hard. They used to go outside and work. They grew vegetables out there, so they didn't want to stay idly at home. If they come here, they can meet new people, and they can know the language. They can see outside in betterment, and they can get some vegetables from here. They work...
Emmanuel: I like farm because when you are in the farm with friends, with other people, you can talk. You can laugh, you can joke, you can do it, which is different from the company. When I'm for like this, I can visit the friends. I can get time to help other people, but with companies, no! It's like you are in a jail.
Grace Gregory: With all of these circumstances aligned, the program has been tremendously successful. Last season, 38 refugee families participated, and though the weather has been less than ideal this season, there is still a surplus of interest and a brawl to get onto the 14-seat bus that transports the refugees to and from the farm each week.
Grace Gregory: During my visit to the farm, I met so many people.
Theresa: I'm Theresa, by the way. Nice to meet you.
Grace Gregory: I'm Grace. It's nice to meet you. I'm Grace.
Karen: Hi I'm Karen.
Grace Gregory: What's your name?
Itibutel: My name is Itibutel.
Grace Gregory: I'm Grace.
Itibutel: Nice to meet you.
Grace Gregory: It's nice to meet you too.
Itibutel: Thank you.
Grace Gregory: Each with their own story, each connected to Salt City Harvest in your unique way.
Theresa: Karen is a volunteer who comes out here. Terrific. Paul Drescher is one of our people that helps us in getting money or needs.
Grace Gregory: To bridge the language gap, a Nepali translator named Pashapati, Pashu for short, whom you've heard already, comes to the farm whenever the refugees come. During my visit, he walked around with me enabling communication between the Bhutanese refugees and myself.
Pashupati (Translator): [Foreign language]
Female Voice: [Foreign language]
Pashupati (Translator): Actually they do same type of work in their country, and they feel very proud to work here like the same way, so they are happy to work here. They love like organic food. They do not love like the chemical food. They love organic food.
Grace Gregory: Most of them were enthralled by their work and were not terribly interested in parting with it in order to talk to me. They love working in the garden because where they live in the city, there's no space to plant anything.
Pashupati (Translator): In our area, there is no land to grow vegetables.
Grace Gregory: You mean in ...
Pashupati (Translator): Here.
Grace Gregory: North Syracuse?
Pashupati (Translator): Yeah, North Syracuse.
Manika: Some place a little bit.
Pashupati (Translator): They used to grow beans, you know. The bucket, they still plant there. We don't have a lot of land.
Manika: Something like market. Food in there and grow.
Grace Gregory: That must be-
Manika: My home, the apartment. No any area.
Grace Gregory: Of course, the lack of space to garden is not the only challenge faced by this refugee community. Many of them want to go back home but can't.
Pashupati (Translator): We want to visit our relatives, our family.
Manika: Just visit.
Grace Gregory: Do you have any family here besides your husband and your kids?
Manika: No. My whole family is in my country.
Pashupati (Translator): Yeah, she’d love to go her country.
Grace Gregory: Do you miss home?
Emmanuel: Oh a lot. Africa, oh, I miss Africa a lot. A lot.
Grace Gregory: Do you ever think you'll be able to go back?
Emmanuel: I have been there like three times, but see when I reach there, I feel like I can stay there, but I can't.
Grace Gregory: Many of them want to work to provide for their families, but they can't find jobs.
Ianthe (“Ice”): A lot of the refugees that we work most closely with have been here for like five to eight years and they don't have jobs, so they're looking for things to do. They want to work. They're extremely driven people, and...
Grace Gregory: And, though the city of Syracuse has welcomed them legally, socially this isn't always the case. Dwayne explained to me some of the tensions that he's noticed as a local.
Dwayne: They have a lot of problems with the people on the north side. We've had our bus windows shot out last year, and I guess the people aren't very nice to them down there. You know, they have the idea, go back to your own country. Well, the ones saying it were from another country at one time.
Grace Gregory: We seem to forget that, conveniently.
Dwayne: I have a problem with some of it. These sanctuary cities, they're taking everybody that comes. It's nice for the politicians that talk, but you know, you've got to think about the people and don't take into your city if you can't take care of them.
Grace Gregory: It's quality of life.
Dwayne: Exactly. It's a shame to pile these people up in the city and not be able to take care of them or give them a chance to take care of themselves.
Grace Gregory: What do you see as the goal for this farm?
Dwayne: I think the goal of it is to help these people get on their own feet so they can go out and lead a decent life and be able to make enough to take care of their family. I think that's all that they're looking for here is to help these people take the next step rather than stay right where they are right now.
Grace Gregory: The Salt City Harvest community garden is undoubtedly important and has a huge impact on the lives of those participating refugees, but as everyone I spoke with acknowledged, it is not necessarily a solution to many of the challenges they face. There are, however, several exciting things happening on the property that have the potential to provide long-term support for refugees. For example, the grant that Salt City Harvest just began.
Ianthe (“Ice”): We're really excited because this year, we just started a 3-year grant that works on giving them small farm businesses by the end of the third year.
Dwayne: Over the three years, they're taught how to farm, how to raise vegetables, clean them for market, how to make change and things like that. Kind of give them a business aspect.
Grace Gregory: Model, yeah.
Ianthe (“Ice”): The first year, which we're in right now, we teach them classes. Through Cornell cooperative extension, there's a full-time teacher who teaches them in the classroom. They come out here. They lend a hand on this farm. There's two in the city that they help out on. Year two, we're going to give them land here. We have tons of land available, which is really cool.
Dwayne: They'll be coming out here and being taught the hops and apples and everything.
Ianthe (“Ice”): We'll be able to give them land and tools and give them a little bit of support and help them through. Then year three is, "How do we get you guys loans? How do we get you to set up businesses?"
Dwayne: Then they're supposedly done with the program.
Grace Gregory: The vineyards and orchards on the farm implemented by the Letcher family also create an opportunity for job training.
Dwayne: There's not a lot of work for farmers around here, but there's a lot of grapes in the area, Finger Lakes and actually around here now, there are several wineries started. They're always looking for people to work in the grapes. That was a good addition to have the grapes and to teach them how to trim them and take care of them, tie them up and everything.
Ianthe (“Ice”): We're really lucky that the Letchers put in this vineyard, which is down the road, and the orchard. The idea is that one thing we really want to start focusing on is job training. New York has tons of jobs in orchard, vineyard, and hop yard industry, and they're really even picking up more. They're looking for skilled, skilled-ish labor. We're hoping that by having these really what I think are pretty small plots of apple trees, grapes, and the hops, they could even get trained on will be able to kind of help some of these people get jobs.
Grace Gregory: Emmanuel's work at Salt City Harvest is another example of a sustainable model that other refugees could potentially mimic in the future.
Emmanuel: My name is Emmanuel Shabihango Deze from Africa Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinchasa, which was Zaire. I have been a refugee for 12 years in Uganda since 2006 up to... I mean since 1996 up to 2008. That's when I left Africa and I came here to the USA, Syracuse, New York. It is almost nine years.
Ianthe (“Ice”): We rent this, about 8.5... 9 acres to him for $1. He comes with his whole family and friends, and they plant the whole 8.5 acres by hand.
Emmanuel: When I reached here, I have tried to make sure I get used to this life, even if it is not easy. I have been working in the companies, many different companies, but still I was not satisfied because I was a farmer in the whole of my background. Then I wanted to become also another farmer in this country, so that I can get the food I wanted. I can eat the food I need, and I can get what I need.
Ianthe (“Ice”): He's so driven. He comes to me every other week, and he's like, "Let's get animals out here. We need to like... business this, business that." We're really excited about projects like this. It's a little bit more realistic as far as assimilating into American culture and being an entrepreneur. Him and his father own a small store on the north side, which is really, really cool. They kind of try to meet refugee needs, so they're growing on another property a few miles from here, some specialty eggplant and things like that. We try to help him also set up different accounts with people that we wholesale to. He's able to do some small sales throughout the winter, which is really nice.
Grace Gregory: There's an anecdote that I heard from a local volunteer named Dwayne, who has been around the farm imparting his knowledge since its inception. I loved it so much I brought it up with every other person I talked to that day. Here's Dwayne.
Dwayne: I don't know if Ice told you, but when they come here, the first thing they do is go around and pick all these weeds that they eat in their country. We call them weeds, and we pick them and throw them away.
Grace Gregory: Really?
Dwayne: Yeah. They go over, and they'll come out with a big armload of some kind of weeds. I forgot the names of them. The ones they pick in between the rows in all of the vegetables.
Grace Gregory: Is it a weed? Is anything that grows that you don't want to be growing there considered a weed, or does a weed have a specific characteristic to its physiology?
Dwayne: No. Anything that you don't want I think is a weed.
Grace Gregory: Okay, I always wondered about that.
Dwayne: Everything at one time was a weed. Tomatoes were a weed, but they found out that you could eat them, and they hybridized them and cross-pollinated. Tomatoes may have been little lumpy things, and they just... yeah.
Grace Gregory: That's interesting. That sort of changes your perspective, seeing somebody consider something food that we don't consider food.
Dwayne: Yeah, we pull them and throw them away and get mad because they get in our garden, and they love them. I wish I could remember the name of that stuff. I found out afterward that you can buy seeds for them. I don't know why you would want to. It grows everywhere, and everywhere you don't want it to.
Grace Gregory: I think it's a beautiful metaphor for what's happening at the farm. Perspectives are shifting. Varied forms of knowledge are in communication with one another. Everyone is learning across vast cultural difference.
Ianthe (“Ice”): I was bringing that up because there's a lot of really strange things happening here, and that's because the idea is that it's a learning farm, so we're trying all these different things. We've got coffee grounds. We've got burlap. There's just weird stuff happening everywhere, which is crazy, but it's also really cool to see how things work. I learn a ton from them all the time too. They'll try things I would have never even thought of. When they come out, I try to be as hands-off as possible and just direct traffic a little bit, but if they want to trellis something someway, it's like, "All right. Go for it. Knock yourselves out."
Karen: I think the one lesson I've learned as watching this evolve is to have a vision but not own it, to allow it to evolve on its own and not get in the way and have the courage and energy and belief that wherever it goes is going to be where it needs to be and empower that forward, you know?
The vision here changed a couple times, of how they wanted to start it and what it became today. So many times, I've owned my own vision, and I said, "No, it's going to be like this" and it stifles because I don't give it the freedom to evolve and unfold.
Ianthe (“Ice”): We just want as many people to come out here and enjoy it and be involved and touch it and be touched by it as possible. It's a lot of ... we jump through a lot of hoops for a lot of different people, but we're just super psyched about that.
Grace Gregory: There are so many pieces to this story that are either missing or are underdeveloped. For example, the personal narratives of the refugees. What made them leave their countries? What were their journeys to the United States like? How have they adjusted? Do they feel supported? What are their hopes and dreams?
I'm also particularly interested in their experiences navigating parenthood. How do they impart their cultural knowledge to their children in this Americanized environment? How do they ensure its survival? To try and answer these questions and better understand the significance of Salt City Harvest, End Pain is returning to the farm to work on a short documentary. We will learn more about the stories of Manika and Emmanuel and hear from new voices too. In talking to the refugees, we will try to better understand what it is like to be forced out of your home, to leave family behind, to try to make a life in an entirely new and foreign place. Most importantly, we will explore what it means to heal through community and food.