Across the Cuyahoga River from downtown Cleveland, men and women dressed in brightly colored clothing harvest vegetables from tidy rows of plantings. Multilingual conversations take place in Hindi, Nepali, Somali and English. With the Cleveland skyline as their backdrop, these refugee farmers nurture their connection to the land and to their new home.
In 2010, the Cleveland nonprofit The Refugee Response created The Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program (REAP) to support resettled refugees in the Cleveland area through farming. During the year-long program, men and women from Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Burundi, Myanmar, and Somalia learn language and job skills as they work the six-acre Ohio City Farm—one of the largest urban farms in the nation.
This year, REAP expects to harvest 22,000 pounds of produce from the farm’s hoop houses and fields. The Refugee Response leases nearly five acres of the Ohio City Farm from the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.
Since Donald Trump took office in January, the United States has become a less friendly place for people born in other countries. But various community groups across the U.S. have long supported refugees—often through efforts focused on agriculture.
In addition to REAP in Cleveland, projects such as Plant It Forward in Houston, New Roots in San Diego, and the Refugee Urban Agriculture Initiative in Philadelphia have found that refugees and urban farming are a good fit, and despite the hostility at the federal level, they remain committed to their work.
“We did a survey, and 80 percent of people who were coming as refugees have some sort of agricultural background,” said Refugee Response Director of Agricultural Empowerment Margaret Fitzpatrick.
That makes a farm an ideal entry into the American work force. In addition, Fitzpatrick explained, people are coming from all kinds of backgrounds, often with a history of violence and trauma. Refugees find farm work comforting and therapeutic.
REAP graduate Lar Doe has been working for REAP since 2012. Although he was born in Myanmar, Doe grew up in a refugee camp on the border of Myanmar and Thailand. After spending nearly 15 years there, he was granted permission to move to the U.S. in 2010. His first jobs were in Kentucky and Iowa, but then he accepted an invitation from the Refugee Response to relocate to Cleveland. He was one of REAP’s first refugee employees.
“It is a diverse city. You can find many different people from different countries,” he said. “I feel like the local people here understand about the world.”
Language and Work Skills
Cleveland has a long history of welcoming refugees; since 1983, 17,000 displaced people have settled in the city. To better serve Cleveland’s increasing population of refugees, 16 organizations pooled their resources to form the Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland in 2011. Collaborative members come from county refugee-resettlement agencies, area school systems, healthcare providers, and community and faith-based organizations.
REAP’s current cohort includes 10 refugees from Congo, South Sudan, and Myanmar.
As part of the program, trainees spend 28 hours each week on the farm and 12 hours in the classroom learning English as a Second Language. Farm work includes planting, seeding, harvesting, packing and delivery. For their farm and classroom time, they earn $9 an hour.
“The farm provides a step into employment in an area where people are comfortable (farming) with a skill set that people already have (farming),” Fitzpatrick said. Graduates of the program have gone on to work in the food service industry or been hired to work for REAP itself.
REAP also teaches participants about U.S. workplace culture. “The idea of being to work on time, calling a manager if you are sick, time sheet—those are things we take for granted being U.S. citizens, but these are skills that are not necessarily taught before they arrive,” Fitzpatrick said.
Doe talks about the differences in workplace culture: “[At home,] if you work and you get tired, you can rest, and if you feel OK, you can go back to work,” he said. “I always suggest to new refugees that they have to be patient, because the way that they work in their home country might be totally different than here.”
Integrating into the Community
Located on the west side of the city, next to public housing and across the street from the city’s oldest farmers’ market, the farm is ideally positioned to help integrate refugees into the diverse fabric of American life.
“I’m very fortunate to have this job here, because this is an opportunity that I can get involved to the community and also learn more about the people and culture,” Doe said.
Refugees have the opportunity to practice English with visitors touring the farm, with Americans volunteering on the farm, with REAP staff, with members of REAP’s 60-person CSA, and with customers at the weekly farm stand.
Before coming to Cleveland, Doe worked at a meat packing plant. “The job I used to work before, it was hard to get involved in the country,” he said. “You only go to work and come back. You may never feel like it is your home.”
The community aspect of the program also appeals to Lachuman Nopeney, a 52-year-old refugee from Bhutan who spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal and came to the U.S. in 2009 with no work experience and few English skills.
He worked at a restaurant in Milwaukee, where talking wasn’t encouraged. After going through REAP in 2016, however, he was hired by The Refugee Response to work on the farm.
“I’m happy,” he said with a broad smile. With the help of Refugee Response staff and other refugees, he is learning English. He likes his job of “working, joking, talking.”
“It’s more than a job,” said Refugee Response Executive Director Patrick Kearns. “The people in the program become like family to each other.”
According to Fitzpatrick, Cleveland is a diverse city that celebrates different cultures. As a result, The Refugee Response has formed solid partnerships with area restaurants including Great Lakes Brewing Company, Urban Farmer, and The Flying Fig. In addition to buying produce, these and other local restaurants hold fundraising events, host dinners on the farm, and even employ REAP graduates. As one of the founders of the Ohio City Farm, the Great Lakes Brewing has a special interest in REAP and currently pays REAP to grow vegetables, herbs, and hops on the restaurant’s one-acre parcel of the Ohio City Farm.
“We’re very fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of local food restaurants here in Cleveland,” Fitzpatrick said.
Lar Doe says he is proud of his job. “I want to do something for the community,” he explains. As a refugee and a relatively newcomer to the country, his options to help build community may be limited. “English is the big issue for me. This [farm] is about the only thing we can do to make the city proud.”
Photos courtesy of The Refugee Response.