Many of the two dozen women harvesting squash and tomatoes in a small urban garden near Atlanta have farming in their genes. But their lives, and their crops, have changed dramatically since they left central Africa.

For more than two generations, families who had fled the horrors of ethnic conflict in Burundi were stuck in makeshift camps, with nowhere to settle and no way to return to their homes. Thousands died, and hundreds of thousands became refugees in Tanzania and Kenya.

Three years ago, the United Nations resettled some Burundian families in the Atlanta area. Their small apartments and strenuous jobs in north Georgia chicken processing plants have little in common with their agrarian roots. After lengthy work hours, many longed for some small touch of their former homeland.

“These women couldn’t imagine being anything but farmers. So imagine living here in a strip mall corridor,” says Susan Pavlin of Refugee Family Services. Seasoned in both refugee issues and the sustainable food movement, she helped create something familiar for them: a community garden.

“It’s an opportunity to build on cultural traditions, pass down farming knowledge to a new generation, and also address some food security issues,” says Pavlin, project manager of the garden.

Developers of East Decatur Station provided the 3/4-acre garden plot in the city of Decatur, where the new residents broke ground in the spring of this year. Soon the land was covered with green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, okra, basil and corn. Some local farmers have donated seeds, and the women are trying to use as many organic practices as possible.      

Occasionally there are some gaps in communication about the crops. The community farm has green beans; the women were expecting to harvest beans they could dry and store.

But they are adapting to different growing opportunities, crops and approaches to farming.

Robin Chanin is the community farm coordinator through Refugee Family Services.

“There are also psychosocial benefits with this garden,” she says. “Women are the driving force for their families. They enjoy the time spent with each other, and the chance to be outdoors,” says Chanin.

Early on, they asked if they could bring their children to the garden each Saturday for a chance to teach them some culture and family history.         

Extended families scattered across globe

That’s important, because the refugee status of these folks has made extended families a rarity. When they leave refugee camps, Chanin explains, they have no say in where they will likely spend the rest of their lives. While there is always an effort to keep nuclear families together, it is not uncommon for one of these women to have a sibling in the Netherlands, and parents who have been resettled in New Zealand. 

Twenty-nine-year-old Judith Sabinna has been in the U.S. nearly three years, after spending five years in a camp in Tanzania. She has four children. Sabinna says her father was killed during the civil war, and she was forced to leave Burundi for a camp in Tanzania.

“Life in the U.S. is good,” she says. “But the job [at the chicken processing plant] is hard.”

She expresses a hope that many of the women echo.

“We would like a bigger garden, because that job is easier,” she says. “In Africa, everyone had a garden.”

While the first year of this project has focused on providing plenty of fresh produce for the women and their families, project managers have made inroads for possible sales in the future. They have linked up with the restaurant Duck’s Cosmic Kitchen to use some of their produce. And they are focusing on lettuce and mixed field greens as a likely cash crop for restaurants or possibly farmers markets.

After bountiful summer crops, the women are getting ready for more planting.

Can't find this at most groceries

“During the last three or four weeks we’ve been transitioning for fall planting,” says Pavlin. “We recently planted a new late summer crop of beans, and also put in some African squash seed, which is starting to sprout. It’s an enormous hard-shelled squash, sort of like a giant butternut squash,” says Pavlin. 

They are also growing a leafy green called mchicha, which they have dubbed “African basil.” The productive plants are providing a familiar vegetable that these residents could never find at an American grocery store.

Two men who were the equivalent of agricultural extension agents back in Burundi are serving as farm managers, Venance Ndayiragije and Obed Nzigimana. Like the women working in the garden, they too have day jobs.

“Mr. Venance,” as he’s known, is a ball of fire, doing most of the translating for the crowd that works each Saturday. 

“I am a farmer, a fisherman, a translator; I work in the chicken factory, and I am a preacher and healer also,” he says.

He’s also an inspiration. 

“If I had Venance’s energy I would be running the country!” says Pavlin.

Volunteers are welcome to visit the site on Saturdays, to help with the harvest, weeding, watering, and building trellises. There’s also a wish list on their blog, our community farm project.

The National Immigrant Farming Initiative, known as NIFI, assists other refugee farmers, immigrants and farm workers across the United States. Much of their support comes from Heifer International.

Executive director Mapy Alvarez says the organization has helped West African farmers in Maryland, Hmong farmers in Minnesota, and Sikh farmers in California.

“The idea is to help support full-time farmers. We help projects get off the ground,” says Alvarez, with workshops, and grants from the Department of Agriculture. The group also helps new U.S. residents get access to farmland.