On a warm spring morning, a group of Burundian refugees gather on a Jefferson Township farm for the first day of planting. They work in pairs, turning the soil and tossing seeds into the earth. They’ll plant beans, corn, onions, tomatoes and various greens on the two acres, one of the largest community gardens in Montgomery County.
Almost one hundred African refugees from the country of Burundi are building new lives in Dayton. Their homeland in Central Africa has endured decades of civil war, forcing many to spend much (if not all) of their lives in refugee camps - and now, to start over in the United States. The transition has not been easy. But, on a farm on the outskirts of Montgomery County, these refugees have found a place to grow.
They have been growing their own food in Dayton since the first wave of refugees came to the region in 2007. Until now, the gardens were limited to small lots near their homes. This summer, thanks to the generosity of a local physician who welcomed them to her farm, they have the opportunity take a significant step toward selling produce at local markets.
Damian Nagerico, a Burundian refugee who came here with his family in 2008, is working in the garden. He shares his hopes for the project through a translator.
“I would like to see if we can grow more,” Nagerico says, “We can farm and harvest a lot more things so we will be able to feed ourselves and sell them to stores so we can have extra money, which may help us in our need for buying things we need at home, like soap and other necessities.”
Nagerico was born in Burundi. When he was a child, his father, two brothers and a sister were killed in fighting between Hutu and Tutsis. Damien went to a refugee camp in Tanzania. He lived there for decades, farming and raising a family. He moved back to Burundi once, but another conflict drove him back to the refugee camp.
When Tanzania began to close the camps, Nagerico and his family were given the chance to resettle in the United States. Dayton is one of several cities that receives funding to resettle refugee populations.
“I was so glad and happy to hear that I was going to come to America,” Nagerico says, “A powerful country, a rich country that helps other countries also, so I could help myself and help my people back home.”
But it hasn’t been easy. Nagerico has struggled to find and keep work. His first job, at auto parts packaging company, ended with layoffs after eight months. Since then, he’s worked on and off through temp agencies, and spent a year volunteering at Goodwill. His family in Burundi call in hopes he might be able to send money back home.
It is difficult, financially and emotionally.
“Our group of people, it is hard for us to find job. We spent years in a refugee camp so we didn’t have a lot of skills,” Nagerico says “We are struggling to find a job and we cannot even fill out applications by ourselves.”
Nagerico and his family have found community in their church, a congregation of Burudnians and Rwandians that meets at a small Methodist church in Huber Heights. One recent Sunday, a guest speaker shares a message from the Psalms - the story of a man whose faith is tested when he compares his difficult life to the easy path of the evil and rich men around him.
“Many of you here have stories you can tell of your lives in Burundia, Rwanda, and what your lives were like in the genocide, during the ethnic violence...” The Pastor says, “You have come to the United States mostly with nothing. You have to learn how us crazy Americans live.
The Pastor’s words ring true. As Burundians build new lives in America, their past carries with them. Isa, like Damian Nagerico, lost his family in the war. He shares his story through a translator.
“At that time, I almost lost my mind. I want to kill myself,” Isa says, “It was night. I was walking around and I saw a group and I went to Tanganyika, it’s a lake, Tangankyika. So, I saw a group of people; they were fleeing using boat and they just kind of say ‘kid, come over here, you can go with us,’ so we fled into the Congo.”
In the Congo, Isa worked as a fisherman for 20 years until war forced him into refugee camp in Tanzania. He came here in 2008 with his family.
When refugees like Isa arrive, they are helped by Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley, a nonprofit that receives funding to resettle refugees. They assist with housing, English classes, government assistance, and other essentials. But eventually, their aid goes away.
“Back home,” Isa says, “When I was a refugee in Tanzania, I was given everything: a place to live, nobody came to ask me for rent or anything. So when I get here, life is good but it is still very hard because I have bills to pay, everything I do has a price on it.
Isa has high hopes for the garden project. Farming is a strong part of the Burundian culture, he says.
Luci Beachdell, who oversees community gardens for Five Rivers Metroparks in Dayton, thinks the Burundian garden could help diversify the produce available in the Miami Valley. For example, Burundians harvest and eat pigweed, an item rare at most markets and groceries that tastes similar to spinach.
Beachdell says, “It might be sold to farmer’s markets, if might be sold to specialty markets. If there were a place that was selling African foods, they might be very interested in buying fresh produce that’s not your standard stuff that American gardeners or farmers are growing.”
Whatever the garden brings in the future, it already creates a sense of peace for Damian Nagerico. In a place so different than his home, planting and growing his own food is a familiar comfort.
“It just reminds me that, all over the world, you can still get a place where you can be able to grow things.