Some refugees in Chapel Hill are finding a way to reconnect with their native farming tradition.
The Karen are a displaced ethnic minority from the Southeast Asian nation of Burma (also known as Myanmar). More than a thousand have ended up in Orange County through resettlement programs, which place them in areas like Chapel Hill with free transportation, good schools and available work as housekeepers.
With the help of a community farming project, Karen people in Chapel Hill are once again growing Burmese crops and making money along the way.
Four miles outside of Carrboro, just off of Jones Ferry Road, the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm buzzes with activity and chatter. Here, thirty-one Karen families grow crops on a four-acre plot owned and preserved by the Triangle Land Conservancy. All are refugees who once farmed in their native Burma. Many fled to escape persecution and spent years living in refugee camps in Thailand.
Now, in the States, most work overnight at low-wage service jobs. They come to the farm as soon as their shifts end. Kelly Owensby is the farm’s project manager. She teaches the refugees how to grow healthy crops in the Piedmont climate -- and how to sell them. Owensby says that back in Burma, farming is a huge part of community and culture.
“It is something that they’ve done for many generations," Owensby says, "and it’s also something that people do on a community level. So for them the farm is not only very practical in that they are learning skills, gaining income, growing food and reducing food insecurity, but it’s also a really big community project.”
April Paw has worked on the farm for two years now. She left a refugee camp in Thailand to move to Chapel Hill six years ago.
“I grow the loofah, natado, we call from my language, and hot pepper, eggplant, banana pepper. I like very much to work here. Like if I want to eat something like my country, then I have it," Paw says.
Eh Thwa Pee, a refugee who serves as a translator for the project, says that the farm also fills a role as a gathering place for the Karen.
“They want to be here together to talk about jobs, to help each other, to hear each other," Pee says, "because our Karen is like a community, gathered together and sharing each other.”
Today is pick-up day for the farm’s CSA program. That stands for community-supported agriculture. Owensby delivers announcements with Eh Thwa Pee’s help. Then, farmers pack boxes of fresh produce for customers. Some crops are instantly recognizable: collards, winter squash, peppers and sweet potatoes. But there are other less familiar vegetables, too: lemongrass, roselle, round green things the size of golf balls that I’m told are Thai eggplants. Those are crops traditionally grown in Burma.
The farmers will take their boxes of produce to Johnny’s Store in Carrboro, where customers who have paid to receive weekly deliveries will pick them up. Transplanting Traditions has already brought in $33,000 through its CSA program this year, and all of that money goes to the farmers.
But there are benefits outside the financial for those who work on the farm. Pi Do is a farmer who came to Chapel Hill this year with his wife and three kids after living in Virginia for six years. Before that, he lived in a refugee camp in Thailand. Pi Do says through Eh Thwa Pee that his health has improved since getting involved.
“Because when he comes to the open space with the fresh air, breathe the fresh air, with the sun, good sunshine, Vitamin D here, and talking about job, talking with friends, making friends, get more information from friends, it’s very good for him that he feels more happy and more healthy.”
And Owensby says that the farm also gives refugees something to be proud of.
“I have one woman who said when she got her first job at UNC — she’s a housekeeper - she’s very grateful for that job, but that she thought to herself, 'I’m going to be here cleaning, in the dark, for the rest of my life,'" Owensby says.
"And I know that the farm for her has given her not only supplemental income, but I think just a really strong pride and an ability to show who she is, where she’s from, something she’s really amazingly good at it, and it just gives her another option.”
This summer, a successful campaign through the crowdfunding website Indiegogo brought in $30,000 for the farm. Though that will enable the project to continue. Owensby stresses that the farm needs more money to get more Karen families off its waitlist and out on to the land.