After surviving refugee camps in Africa, Janine Ndagijimana settled in Vermont and began to dream of farming.
When she considered what to plant, she thought back to her time in Tanzania and the foods she had so loved during her time there. Eventually, she settled on the African eggplant, also called bitter ball or garden egg. It isn’t found in Vermont, and she remembered how it garnered a good price at the refugee market.
These days, Ndagijimana’s farming of the oblong white fruit and other varieties has turned her into a refugee success story in Vermont, one of the least culturally or racially diverse states, with a population that’s 95 percent white. She’s part of a growing number of farmers from other parts of the world who have used social media, the internet and niche markets often in big cities to successfully sell crops native to their home countries. She grows eggplants on 3 acres (1.2 hectares) of land on two plots in Burlington and Colchester, one of which was leased to her for free by a local farmer.
She said she’s hoping when the business gets bigger she can use the money she makes to send her kids to college.
Other refugee communities also are growing and selling native crops around the U.S., according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Arlington, Virginia. For example, Burmese and Bhutanese farmers are raising and selling eggplants, peppers and herbs in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Syrian and Iraqi refugees are growing peppers and mint in Dearborn, Michigan, said Lee Williams, the organization’s Senior Vice President.
For many, gardening and farming is a way for refugees to get back to their roots, to connect their new identities with the old, and to make America feel just a little more like home. In fact, USCRI Cleveland operates a chemical-free garden in the old Stockyards Neighborhood of Cleveland. Grapes, fruit trees, brambles, herbs, and a variety of vegetables grow throughout the field and in raised beds, which are tended by refugee volunteers and staff.
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