Burmese Families Grow New Future

Though mostly invisible, refugees walk amongst us in Portland, Oregon. Over 26,000 Southeast Asians have arrived in Oregon since 1975. However, one is unlikely to cross paths with a refugee due to the stratification of our neighborhoods and job markets.

The Agriculture Project at Mercy Corps Northwest (MCNW) works with families from Burma, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Nepal, Russia, Uzbekistan, and more. Through this program, refugees are given access to unused urban plots of land (through the Diggable Cities Project) or land that is donated by members of the community.

The largest plot that MCNW cultivates is in Damascus and is used as a training site. This past year the training site had some new additions. Kyaw, Nang, and Ngun are from Burma (Myanmar), but fled the country due to persecution. Before arriving in Oregon, they lived in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia. These refugee camps are crowded, and in Thailand, they are home to over 160,000 Burmese nationals.

Kyaw, Nang and Ngun came to Oregon about 4 years ago and met here. The move meant safety and hope for the future, but it can be difficult for a refugee to obtain housing and employment when contending with a new language and culture.

Our Burmese participants connected to MCNW through the Burmese Community Church. At the time, they were cultivating a 15’X15’ plot at the Grow Portland Community Garden. Joining MCNW’s Agriculture Project provided the opportunity to grow even more vegetables through access to additional land and equipment.

With the help of our interpreter Mung, Nang tells us, “We got the seeds, we also have some mulching and watering. And so these things we cannot afford.”

In Burma, Kyaw, Nang, and Ngun were subsistence farmers and have much experience cultivating land. However, the Pacific Northwest brings new challenges and opportunities. Nang tells us, “In Burma we have a rainy season, and no need for watering the crops. For the land preparation we used cow and plow, but here we use machine.”

At the training site, participants are taught how to grow new types of produce appropriate for local markets, as well as how to grow in a new climate. MCNW brings these crops to market via Farmer’s Markets, partnerships with restaurants, and a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). The harvest becomes a boon to feed families and supplement incomes.

Nang tells us, “As soon as we arrive here, the government give us the Food Stamp. But now we are proud to grow our own food.”

Participants still work night jobs to pay the bills, but relish the idea of growing full time. “Most of the refugees are uneducated. We are farmers. We want to work the land every year. We want to produce more to get income.”

We are off to an excellent start, but there are many other refugee families eager to participate, and not enough land to meet demand. If you like what we are doing, and want to see it grow, here are some ways to get involved:

Click here to support Mercy Corps Northwest’s refugee agriculture project

Individuals can make a huge difference by contributing dollars to help purchase fertilizer, equipment, and other supplies. Much of this work is done on small plots donated by the community. If you have an unused parcel of land and want to learn how to put it to use, contact Seth Belber at sbelber@mercycorpsnw.org.

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