On Saturdays at the Lenexa Farmer’s Market, grower and vendor Ibrahim Dugudu sells his produce from a stall that shares much in common with others in the area. Baskets of vegetables fill the table, and hand-written signs identify the veggies and their prices.
Dugudu’s journey to becoming a grower and market vendor is unique. In a years-long journey, he has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, moving his family here from his native Democratic Republic of Congo in order to provide a safe future for his family.
A program called New Roots allowed him to return to his calling.
“When I first moved to the United States I couldn’t find a job,” Dugudu said. “I was a farmer back in Africa. My parents and grandparents have always farmed, and I was born a farmer, so I asked to be a farmer.”
Established jointly by Catholic Charities and Cultivate KC in 2008, New Roots for Refugees is an agriculture nonprofit where refugees learn to start their own small produce farms in the Midwest. Each year, 16 families who have come to the area from around the world enroll in the four-year program.
Dugudu and his family are examples of nearly 2 million Congolese people who were forced to leave their country in the past few years. Escaping with little, and facing unknown prospects in other countries, they fled to avoid mutilation, arrest, detention in inhumane conditions and even murder.
Dugudu and his family left their home, and arrived in the Kansas City area three years ago facing a future filled with unknowns.
Within a few short months, that uncertain future is brimming with possibilities, thanks to a local farmer’s training program, New Roots for Refugees.
New Roots’ 9-acre training site, Juniper Gardens, is located in Kansas City, Kan. When they start the program, each individual or family is given a quarter-acre plot at the farm.
“The first year, the farmers are provided tools and supplies at no cost. Along with training, staff also accompanies them to farmers’ markets and on visits to wholesale customers,” said Meredith Walrafen, New Roots for Refugees program coordinator.
“As they move through the program, trainees gradually take on more responsibility with the goal that by the fourth year, they can operate a produce farm and are paying for most of the associated costs.”
During the New Roots program, refugees learn growing techniques for vegetables that will thrive in the Midwest and are also popular with their market and Community Supported Agriculture Program (CSA) customers. They study area weather patterns, federal rules and regulations applicable to commercial growing, where to purchase supplies and how to negotiate prices.
Language skills are also a key element of the New Roots year-round curriculum.
“Most of our trainees bring farming skills from their home country,” Walrafen said. “Language proficiencies are the primary thing that keeps them from starting their own farms here.”
English is taught in the program’s winter months. The focus is on farm vocabulary and conversational skills, so growers can talk with customers about how they grow their vegetables and cooking tips.
The chemical- and pesticide-free, non-GMO produce grown at Juniper Gardens helps feed the refugees’ families. Like Dugudu, the growers also sell their produce at local farmer’s markets and through the CSA program.
“Money is a huge stressor for people,” Walrafen said. “New Roots also opens the doors to possibilities for an income and provides a financial future for the refugees.”
With new dreams in place, Dugudu has eyes set on a bright future, once he completes the New Roots training in two years.
I would like to buy a house and medium-sized farm for my family when I finish the program,” he said. “I want to grow vegetables and have chickens and goats.”
“Farming is important to me and I love it. I like to work in the dirt and water, and I love flowers.”
Walrafen knows, firsthand, the powerful hope refugees discover for their futures through this program.
“New Roots transforms lives,” she said. “I’m a believer in the power of food to connect people. In every culture, it’s a way for people get to know each other.”
“Our growers have fled a negative situation to come to this new place. They bring experience and expertise — and growing is something they know how to do. They come with this valuable skill set and farming is something everyone needs.”
To learn more about New Roots for Refugees and their CSA program, visit https://catholiccharitiesks.org/new-roots-for-refugees