Refugees Start Fresh on the Farm
As a farmer in Bhutan, Laxmi Narayan Mishre provided food and stability for his family.
But when ethnic tensions flared in the small Himalayan country, his land was seized.
With his wife and ten children, Mishre would spend the next two decades living in a cramped refugee camp in neighboring Nepal. Rumors swirled about a possible resettlement to America, and what life would be like here.
“[We] heard that in America, there is no forest, no trees, no soil,” he says.
“Everywhere, just the concrete, big, big buildings. You never get chance to get in the field. Never get chance to work in the soil. You will forget the color of the soil. People used to say that.”
After two years in New Hampshire, the 58-year old is getting reacquainted with the dirt. Looking every bit the American farmer--with mud boots and a plaid shirt--he’s working his share of a seven acre farm in Dunbarton.
Mishre is one of about 40 refugee and immigrant farmers working the donated land.
It’s a project of the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success, a Manchester-based non-profit that helps new arrivals.
The farmers grow food for their families, and also to sell through a CSA. It’s called Fresh Start Farms.
Helen Edelstein is the marketing coordinator.
“It’s fresh, local food. Look for us at your local market,” she adds.
The collective also hopes to sell produce to restaurants and college dining halls. But for farmers, the goals remain pretty modest.
“Maybe I can make $5000?” says Martin Bukasa.
“That can be my first experience. Later, maybe we can have a big farm."
In the late 90’s, Bukasa fled the violence of a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in central Africa.
After a year in Texas, he moved to Manchester, where he got full-time work in a Velcro factory. That’s still his day job. For now, the farm is a source of extra income, and enjoyment.
“This is my peas,” he says. “I started planting these on May 3rd. Onions. They already starting to come out. This going fast. I’m so happy to see this.”
Bukasa and the others receive technical training from a team of farming specialists. They took classes throughout the winter on succession planting, growing organically and dealing with New Hampshire’s ever-changing weather.
On site, they get help from Anthony Munene. He’s a native of Kenya who works for Fresh Start.
“We are training them to use the machine,” says Munene, explaining a rototiller to some farmers. “It is very hard for them. They have never, ever used equipment. They’ve done everything by hand.”
Munene says getting the farmers to trust new techniques is part of the challenge.
“So if you tell them, ‘This is how you are supposed to do it here in America,’ they are like, ‘No. I’m going to do it in the way I do it at home.”
But he says that isn’t frustrating.
“Because, sometimes the way they are telling me, it works, and when it fails, they tell me, ‘O yeah, now I see. And that is the best way to work with them.’”
Along with gaining skills, Munene says the farm also serves as therapy. Many of these refugees endured the horrors of war, the uncertainty of resettlement, and the financial challenges of starting from scratch.
For Martin Bukasa, it’s also a chance to pass along his skills.
“We need to be close to the Earth, because we eat food,” he says.”
“I can sell, too. And my son, very excited too. He said, Daddy, I can help you too.”