Refugee Farmers of Fresh Start Farms Share Their Stories
For the refugee farmers of Fresh Start Farms, there’s no path back to the lands they once called home. But now New Hampshire soil invites them to plant the seeds for both a livelihood and a new life.
Alex Sebantu grew up, like many of the farmers at Fresh Start Farms, amid ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His family moved to a refugee camp in the neighboring country of Burundi when he was 14, but they could not escape the war. “The rebels followed us to our refugee camp, which was protected by the police of Burundi, but they attacked us anyway. They massacred.” Sebantu speaks with an almost apologetic tone while he talks about the attack, compensating with intermittent shy, sad smiles. “Our camp looked like this,” he gestures to the greenhouse we are in, the flimsy plastic walls letting in late summer sun. “We cut it and ran outside. But a lot of people died at that time. A lot. They burned it with gasoline,” he looks down at his lap, “it was horrible.”
At 17, Sebantu and his parents came to New Hampshire as refugees. “To us, it was very new.” He laughs, remembering his first days in school. “We didn’t even understand the language the teacher would be writing or speaking.” In 2007, there was no translator available at his high school.
Sebantu learned to communicate through books, television and the surrounding community. “The good thing here in America, they don’t laugh at you if you say something incorrect. They will correct you, the way that you’re supposed to speak to different people — and that’s how we learned English,” he says, speaking for the many who came from all over Africa during so many years of turmoil. From Somalia, Kenya, Burundi, the DRC, they came here seeking refuge.
Sebantu was a child in the DRC, an adolescent in between worlds, and is now an adult in New Hampshire. He works for the nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success (ORIS) as a case manager, helping new refugees find employment, and obtain and file documents, among other things. He often directs people to the workshops run by Fresh Start Farms.
Fresh Start Farms is a New Hampshire co-op started by refugees. With both their Dunbarton and Concord locations, they have 30 farmers who grow and sell their produce. ORIS helps them learn how to manage land and run a business, then they draft their own business plans and get to work.
Farmers at Fresh Start work as small business owners. Refugees are billed for their plane tickets when they arrive, which means that many begin building their businesses while in debt.
When Fresh Start Farms first started, they didn’t have running water; the farmers carried buckets of water from marshy areas on the property. They had one greenhouse, for training purposes. Since then, they have dug a 200-foot-deep well and built six greenhouses with the help of federal USDA farm assistance programs. In 2018, ORIS officially bought the Dunbarton property it had been renting, and was able to apply for grants and partnerships to get electricity and serviceable roads running to the property. “So it started slowly with nothing, and we have this now,” says Sebantu.
Fresh Start currently has a waiting list for refugees who want to farm. “We’re just working on funds for more land or clearing more land,” says Fresh Start program director Matthew Thorne. Meanwhile ORIS is educating and training farmers so they can run their own farms and businesses.
Greenhouses at the farm can sound like a modern-day tower of babel, overflowing with Lingala, Somali, French and English. “I didn’t think I would move to New Hampshire to learn Swahili,” Thorne jokes. He came on board from a background in nonprofits, horticulture and habitat restoration. The ORIS program that supports Fresh Start is the New American Sustainable Agriculture Program (NASAP). The term “new American” is a fitting description for refugees like Sebantu. “This is the new face of New Hampshire in a lot of ways,” says Thorne, who has watched the community grow. “I’ve talked to a middle school teacher who teaches in Concord. He teaches a lot of Congolese and Nepalis, and he said, ‘If you’d told me 20 years ago that this is what my classroom would look like in New Hampshire, I never would have believed you.’”
Part of the learning process for the farmers has been to embrace a whole new culture of food. “In Africa, they don’t eat salad,” Sebantu says, noting that the African diet does not include many cruciferous vegetables or leafy greens. “Broccoli and radishes and cauliflowers, stuff you see in the stores? They are not very common,” he says.
Because of this division of food cultures, the farmers sell most of their more familiar ethnic crops to the African community and their American crops to the American community, but there have been more cross-sales recently, with local curiosity about African food growing. And the farmers? According to Sebantu, “They are learning about salad here.”
A New Kind of Market
On summer Thursdays, in the midst of downtown Manchester traffic, a row of farmstands overflow with curly piles of dark green kale, deep purple eggplant and pale orange butternut squash. African pumpkins sit side by side with fresh corn on a colorful cloth. Their colors pop against a gray, late-season sky. Hajiya, Fadumo and Asli, wearing headscarves (hijabs) and traditional Somali dresses known as baatis, sell their produce at the weekly Manchester Community Farmers Market.
“Today is slow because food stamps are not coming through for families until tomorrow,” explains Minata Toure, the farm’s marketing coordinator. Fresh Start helps administer a program called Granite State Market Match (GSMM), which matches peoples’ SNAP EBT money dollar for dollar. It’s part of what Thorne calls the farm’s “responsibility for food security,” the idea being that a community-supported program should in turn support the community.
“I would say 70 percent of the customers are EBT,” says Toure. At her terminal, she accepts credit, debit and SNAP EBT in exchange for the small wooden tokens that vendors accept as cash. “When you buy 10 dollars, you get 10 greens and 10 reds [tokens],” Toure explains. “You can use the green for greens — like to buy vegetables.” The red tokens are more versatile; they can be used for any food stamp purchase, like local maple syrup or honey.
The system is more than convenient; in the middle of an urban space, many of the farms prefer the tokens to amassing cash. “We even have some vendors here that don’t accept cash for safety reasons. They prefer to use tokens.” At the end of the market, she buys back the tokens and transfers the money.
For many, Fresh Start has become the face of the market. People first come to Toure’s booth for their tokens and then find themselves funneled past stands of colorful ethnic and American crops and new American vendors, decked out in their brightly patterned baatis and sandwiched next to neighbors who sell maple syrup and grass-fed beef.
Fresh Start Farms took on the role of supplying tokens and managing the receipts for other vendors because they have so many representative farmers there. Today, its numerous farmers have become a large presence at local markets — hence Toure’s unexpected role as the unofficial market accountant.
During the farming season, Toure is at Fresh Start every morning, helping the farmers figure what produce they’ll be sending to each market. After they pack them up, she delivers community supported agriculture (CSA) shares to people’s workplaces or homes. Fresh Start Farms’ CSAs provide seven to eight items (bundles of leafy greens, squash, pints of tomatoes) for a single share and 11 for a family share.
Toure came here on a student visa in 2012 from Burkina Faso and then was granted asylum in the US. She got her LNA license, volunteered with, and eventually worked for, the Granite State Organizing Project (GSOP), which helps educate youth from the refugee community, and then came to work for ORIS full time three years ago.
In the six years since she moved to America, Toure has gotten married and started a family, but her extended family is still back home in western Africa. “I still feel like I am from Burkina Faso,” she admits. “I remember one time I went to a workshop and somebody was asking, ‘Where are you from?’ And I was like, ‘I’m from Burkina Faso,’ and he was like, ‘No, I’m just asking where do you live now?’” She laughs. “I say, ‘Oh, in Manchester!’” Toure laughs often.
In Africa, she says, your extended family is a huge part of your focus. “Everybody help everybody. In Africa, my mom never had a babysitting problem because everybody is around and everybody helped.”
Sometimes Toure worries about her son growing up between two cultures. “I don’t know how he will be with my family — If he will see them as family, being American and speaking a different language. But sometimes it is exciting to see all the opportunity that your son will have as an American.”
So does New Hampshire feel like home? “With Fresh Start, I see all of them as home, like my people,” she says, pointing around the wash station. “I see my mom in her, I see my grandma in Fadumo. We’re not from the same country — we’re not even from the same part of Africa — but I really feel ‘home’ and I feel like what I’m doing is helping my community.”
It’s Erin Miller’s first year with Fresh Start Farms’ CSA, but she plans to continue, noting, “They always have a good variety.” And she likes that the work helps immigrants assimilate. “It fits into my vision of Manchester,” says Miller, an occupational therapy assistant working in rehab.
Magdalena Czaplinski, who emigrated here from Poland, used to go to the farmers market often after she got out of work at the downtown YMCA. Then she had two kids. “Right now, obviously getting out of the house with these two, it’s a little bit more of a hassle,” she says, juggling toddlers in a double stroller. “I’m an outsider as well, so I kind of feel how they might feel.”
Deborah Harbin and Mags Pattantyus have had a CSA with Fresh Start for the summer and fall, and have strong feelings about their produce: “It’s the most vibrant, most beautiful produce that I feel like anybody could get in Manchester,” Pattantyus says, beaming.
At the corner of Elm and Pleasant streets, the market is in a high-traffic area. As Toure hands out tokens, people pour off a bus and stare at the blue-capped booths. The bus driver himself walks off to buy a pint of tomatoes and then hops back on to continue his route.
Toure’s husband visits her at the farmers market with her 2-year-old son. She expects him to grow up multilingual, speaking both her native French and the English he has learned in school. “Bisous! Bisous!” she says into her giggling toddler’s face. Both mother and son share the same infectious laugh.
Toure is currently working on designing “grower profiles” — a picture and a biography on the website for each farmer — based on a new trend she’s noticed: “The CSA customers that we have now … they want to know their farmers.”
From Refugee to New American: Stories of Growers
Most of the farmers at Fresh Start are female, but Sylvain is one of a few men who has a plot. He works 40 hours a week for Enterprise Rent-a-Car and comes here after work to tend his vegetables. As a member who can read and write in multiple languages, Sylvain also serves as the chairman of the co-op.
He is tending to some sprinkler lines as he points out the rows in his greenhouse. “I’m starting some radishes here for the cold season. I have those Chinese cabbage. They’re responding very well. They like this weather.” Many of these are new-to-him American crops, he explains, but there is one that he knows well from his old home in the DRC. “Collard greens,” he says. “You can grow them in just a week because it’s so warm. Over there, we just call them sukuma wiki — That means, ‘push the week.’
“These are the seed from the first crop when I started. I try to keep the seed,” he explains, and turns to a line where dried amaranth hangs. “All these seeds are going to fall and then next year they’re going to come back.”
Sylvain came here in 2006. His mother’s family was Rwandan and, although they had become Congolese citizens long ago, they were not safe in the DRC. Sylvain and his wife escaped to Tanzania where they were sent to refugee camp in the Kigoma region called a Mkugwa, “a camp that the UN started for refugees who came from different countries … That’s the first time that I see Tutsis and Hutus living together,” he says. The camp, where he spent six years, actually held reconciliation trainings for warring factions. “When you agree to go there you have to respect each other. Even if you fought back home, when you get there, it’s peace.”
A common story among refugees is that there is seldom enough food, water or work in the camps, but this often leads to innovation. “In the refugee camp they don’t give you vegetables. They have jobs, they pay you a little bit, and I didn’t like that. I was like, ‘Instead of doing that, I can start my own garden.’” Within the confines of the refugee camp and bracketed by the tense peace of Tutsis and Hutus, Sylvain raised pigs and grew passion fruit and amaranth, sweet potatoes and peanuts.
“Everywhere I go, I grow things — even back when I was younger, I used to grow flowers around my vegetables. Now this is my home, that’s why I’m doing this,” Sylvain explains, “When you start planting, that’s your home.”
Batulo works in housekeeping and manages three farm plots: one at each of the Fresh Start properties and one with the Sycamore Community Garden Project. She came over from Somalia to escape fighting 14 years ago years ago, after spending 16 years in refugee camps.
She speaks English and a few Somali dialects, including Maay Maay. Like many of the others, New Hampshire was where she saw snow for the first time and also where she has raised her daughter, Medina, born in a Kenyan camp. Medina is a middle-schooler now, and she stands by Batulo, texting on her phone. “She is sick today, came to farm instead of going to school,” she says. The girl smiles shyly and then goes back to her technology.
When Batulo first arrived, she was very afraid. Coming from a war-torn country, she would shut the door on people who knocked, having no way to understand them. Eventually, she learned English and came to work at Fresh Start nine years ago, seeking, like many other refugees, a fresh source of produce. “You go to the store, you don’t know if it’s fresh or not fresh,” she explains. “Here you know.”
Hajiya (as translated by Hibo Ali)
Hajiya came here about 10 years ago from Somalia, a city called Jilip. She stands next to a massive summer squash, wearing a plaid button-up over a brightly colored baati. She talks with her hands, making big gestures to accompany her Maay Maay, a Somali dialect that Hibo Ali (an ORIS case worker) translates to English.
After the war, she spent 17 years in Kenyan refugee camps, moving from Dadaab to Kakuma. There was not enough food or water at the camps, Hajiya says. “It was very crowded. There were a lot of people there and there was nowhere to sleep; we were just sleeping wherever we want — outside, the grass, everywhere.”
Her story is familiar to Sylvain’s. “The life there was tough and how I get through was, I realize we can start our own harvesting. We started planting our own things, our own vegetables, making our own money, getting to making our own little shops.”
When Hajiya came to America, she didn’t expect to farm. But the winter, she discovered, was very harsh. Many immigrants from Africa say that wearing a jacket is uncomfortable, because they’ve never done it before. Having the heavy material on their bodies feels wrong as does, of course, the frigid temperature.
Eventually Hajiya found out about ORIS and thought, “I can get back to my normal life where I can start making my own vegetables. I couldn’t handle just sitting at home watching the snow in the winter.”
Now she’s used to winter, wearing jackets and boots, she says proudly while day cicadas buzz in the tall grass along the greenhouse walls. “She got her roots back” here, at Fresh Start Farms, her translator Ali explains.
Hajiya has five children. Her oldest daughter, who was born in the Kakuma refugee camp, is 15 now and attending Manchester Central High School. “She is very connected,” says Hajiya. “She always feels like she’s in the community.”
The rest of her children were born here, in New Hampshire. All five of her children can’t imagine what it is like to not be American, much less what it is like to be without a country, shuffling from place to place. “I have talked to all my kids and told them about the refugee camps, all the years that I spent,” Hajiya says in Maay Maay. “Whenever I tell them what I went through, they can’t believe it.”
Ali is a Somali who speaks three languages. Born at a refugee camp in Kenya and brought to New Hampshire when she was 7, she has been straddling two worlds ever since. Like Sebantu, she works in case management at ORIS and often assists with translation.
Ali talks more about the struggles of others than her own experiences as a refugee. She looks at the wash station, where women grip bundles of scallions to shake loose in streams of water. They walk back and forth carrying baskets, their bright baatis brilliant in the hanging mist.
“Back in Africa, they used to have their own farm, plant their own vegetables, take care of their family with their own products, with their hands,” she says. “That was part of their life and when they came to America they were like, ‘We want to get back to our old life,’ and when they started coming to this farm, they know what to do.”
At the refugee camp where she was born, Ali and her family watched a video to prepare them to come to the States. It was the first time she saw things like American school buses and winter weather. She says, “When we come to America, they have a very difficult time with snow. Some are scared of the snow, won’t go out, stay at the house the whole time … They’re not used to it because in Africa it’s 100 degrees. It’s very humid.”
A woman approaches with a basket, pushing small golden discs into people’s hands. “Somali cookies,” explains Ali. The cookies taste familiar but exotic, a mixture of butter, flour, sugar and Somali spices that Ali is unable to translate. “We would have different names for them in America.”
They’re a common treat at Somali weddings, where the women “wear tons of colorful dresses like the ones they’re wearing but different,” explains Ali, in a hot pink baati. “Some are see-through, sparkly, flowery, and the whole entire hall or room will be so colorful.”
Anthony Munene and Amisa
Anthony Munene, who works for ORIS, began working with immigrants and refugees in Maine 10 years ago. He has been a farm manager at Fresh Start for six years now and watched it grow. He is amused to see these big plots that can yield food enough to sell the excess. In Kenya, he says, people do not do this. They have their “kitchen garden,” a small plot where they grow their food “not for business, not for selling — it’s where you plant stuff for your family.”
At the smaller “incubator farm” that Fresh Start rents from Saint Paul’s School in Concord, Munene translates for Amisa, who stands with her hands on her hips and a tall basket balanced on her head.
“I don’t know how she does that,” admits Munene.
She leans to one side in her purple and yellow baati and speaks while Munene translates, “You have to learn when you are young.” Amisa, like many of the refugees at Fresh Start, did not know she would farm when she got here. She used to think that America was all paved, she says, laughing.
She left her home in the DRC, like many others, because the fighting showed up at her doorstep. There was “fighting in the forest,” Amisa says, describing the gunshots that constantly plagued her banana plantation. Her brother-in-law was one of those fighting, and he came to them to ask her husband to join. When her husband said no, his brother killed him. He wounded Amisa badly as well but she escaped to a refugee camp in Tanzania. She spent nine years there but moved because of tribal tension within the camp. She went to four other camps before coming to America. “We had to find ways to survive in the camp.” Amisa says. She started a café there where she made donuts.
She is animated, upbeat even, but Munene shakes his head while he translates. “That really was messed up,” he says after the story of her husband’s murder. “It’s really a lot of trauma.”
Amisa is more matter-of-fact: “Oh, people don’t understand it,” she says. “How will they? What they see in the media is not the real deal. Refugee — if you really take a moment to think about the term — you leave your country, house, wealth, children, everything.”
“The first thing Americans should understand is if they see refugees it is just that. They have gone through trauma. They would love to be peacefully in their own country; peace is very important. They lost everything, they moved from country to country. It’s very difficult.” Amisa goes back to work and Munene turns away, speaking softly. “Having peace is very important.”
It is quieter at the Concord farm. There are fewer plots and no greenhouses at this incubator location, and at midday there is not the same bustle of farmers market preparations. A young woman stands in the field wearing a hajib and a sweatshirt, and Munene waves to her as he walks through the different crops. He points out two cornstalks side by side — African and American corn that they are crossbreeding. “You get a very different maize,” Munene says.
Munene is not a refugee; he immigrated here to help refugees assimilate. “I had a chance to visit the refugee camp,” he says, “and it’s bad … But there is life in the refugee camp. If you stay in the camp for 10 or 12 years you have to learn how to survive.” Like Amisa with her café, Hajiya with her garden, Sylvain with his peanuts and flowers, the Fresh Start farmers understand survival.
Together, they’ve grown a new life here, up from the roots. “Food brings people together. Food brings your mind and your spirit together,” says Munene. “Now that they are here working on the farm, it’s therapy.”
These people have come here seeking peace, religious freedom, opportunity and innovation, or for some of them, only a peaceful place where they can put down roots. In that sense, they are more reminiscent of old Americans than new ones. Maybe that’s appropriate, though, since they’re joining one of the oldest states in the union and one of the oldest traditions in America, a visible reminder that communities are not immutable. They are in a constant cycle of struggle and peace, loss and rebirth, sadness and joy, pushed by forces beyond their control to grow.
The photos in this story are part of a yearlong project by Israeli-born photographer Yoav Horesh, who has earned the trust and friendship of the farmers of Fresh Start Farms. Since 2001, Horesh’s work has been concerned with history, conflict, memory, ethnicity and multiculturalism, taking him to the American Southwest, Germany, Laos, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Bolivia, Vietnam, Mongolia and Cambodia, places where history still shapes and influences current events and daily life.
In the summer of 2017, Horesh was hired as the chair of the photography department at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester.
He got involved in chronicling and promoting the work of Fresh Start Farms in 2018. “I strive to help make their work appreciated and supported using my large-format camera and being engaged with their work and life on the farm on a weekly basis,” writes Horesh in his artist’s statement.
Currently, selections of his work at Fresh Start Farms is featured as part of the “New England Biennial 2019” at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, through September 15, 2019.