Somali Bantus immigrants embrace new
A child digs through a garden plot behind Burlington College on North Avenue in Burlington. The community garden is allowing Somali Bantu immigrants to grow their own vegetables. / MATT SUTKOSKI, Free Press
The big square patch of brown dirt, dotted with a few tufts of uprooted grass, was part of a lawn until recently.
Earlier this month, on a humid, sunny spring day, on property behind Burlington College, the patch of grass was gone, replaced by a nascent vegetable garden. Already, the plot was transforming into a fun gathering place for Somali Bantu refugees and soon would become a source of inexpensive, nutritious food and maybe the start of a new business for the community.
This all started recently, when Burlington College moved to its new campus in the former state Roman Catholic Diocese complex on Burlington’s North Avenue. The institution found itself with plenty of lawns along with expanded space for classrooms. The classroom space was productive. The lawns, not as much.
But gardens are productive. So in keeping with the college’s goal of being engaged with the community, the idea surfaced to put the gardens together with the Burlington area’s Somali Bantu community, part of a wave of refugees who arrived from strife in Africa during the past decades.
Jared Carter, a faculty and staff member at Burlington College, said he does some pro-bono and “low-bono” work as a lawyer with his nonprofit Vermont Community Law Center. Some of his clients are Somali Bantus. That sparked some initial talks about the gardens in March — an idea Burlington College fully embraced, Carter said.
“This is Burlington. People were pushing us forward,” Carter said.
Mohamed Abdi, executive director of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Vermont, said he was among those who discussed the idea of a garden for the Somali community with Burlington College.
“This was our great dream for years,” Abdi said recently as he watched Somali women start prepping the garden for planting. “This is a great start for us.”
Initially, the gardens will become an inexpensive source of food for Somali Bantus. Naimo Muhdi, among the people tilling the soil for her garden one mid-May day, said she is thrilled to finally have a garden.
“It costs me a lot to go to the grocery store to buy my vegetables,” she said through interpreter Hassan Nur. “If I can grow here, it will save us money.”
Muhdi was planning a wide variety of favorite vegetables, including tomatoes, broccoli, onion, salad greens and peppers. She said she accepts the fact she can’t, here in chilly Vermont, grow some of the crops she harvested in her native Somalia — produce such as bananas, coconut, mango and papaya.
A Somali immigrant now living in Vermont prepares her community garden plot behind Burlington College Wednesday, May 16, 2012. The garden is a space for Somali immigrants to grow their own food, and possibly eventually sell some of it. / MATT SUTKOSKI, Free Press
The garden space is about the size of a tennis court, and thin strings divide it to sections for about 30 families. Abdi said another garden plot would be tilled out of another section of lawn nearby. Some open space would remain as a place for Somali children to play.
The children there the day of the planting, many of them as young as 2 or 3, seemed more intent on working in the garden than on playing, at least for awhile. Some picked up shovels and rakes as their mothers dug furrows into the earth.
After a few speeches lauding the community garden as it opened, about a dozen Somali woman got right to work on the gardens. They worked quickly in the midday heat, creating furrows seemingly instantaneously. The enterprise was delightfully noisy. The women chatted and laughed with each other as they worked. Children screamed and chased each other around the edges of the garden.
As practical as the gardens are for the Somali immigrants, the plots have an educational component, too. Carter, the Burlington College faculty member, is teaching a class called the sustainability and urban gardens project. The 10 students taking the class, ranging in age from late teens to a woman in her 80s, will learn how to help most effectively the families using the gardens, learn the best ideas about how to expand and improve the gardens, and work with the families and others in the community to make the gardens and the gardeners thrive.
“I see this as a first step, a model not just for urban gardens, but for other classes as well,” Carter said.
Many of the Somalis hope the gardens are a first step for them, too, Abdi said.
If the gardens grow, either on the Burlington College campus or spread to other areas in the region, they could become a source of income and an outlet for entrepreneurial urgings.
Some members of the Somali community want to learn about the market for fresh vegetables in and around Burlington, how to properly manage the day-to-day operations of farm-to-store businesses, and how to promote themselves.
In some ways, that would bring the Somalis full circle, as many of them worked on farms and cooperatives in Somalia, selling produce to stores and individuals, Abdi said.
Carter, looking out at the gardens on their first day of operation, said, “This is a great start for our first summer on this campus.”
Source: Burlington Free Press