Urban St. Louis farm gives opportunity to refugees

ST. LOUIS (AP) — What used to be 10 city blocks in St. Louis is now an outdoor classroom where refugees are learning about organic food production, perhaps on their way to becoming farmers.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the urban agriculture program run by the International Institute of St. Louis is among 19 across the country funded by grants from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. This year’s grants total $1 million nationwide.

“There has really been a wellspring of interest in this around the country,” said Larry Laverentz, who manages the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, based in Washington. “Organizations are recognizing that refugees’ being able to farm has real value. It’s proven that it’s good for them in terms of supplemental income and helps integrate them into the community. Many of the refugees were farmers in their countries of origin. They can grow familiar foods, and it provides better nutrition.”

First Lady Michelle Obama called the program “a model for the nation, for the world” when she visited a community farm in San Diego last year.

In St. Louis, 11 refugees from five countries are participating in a three-year program that starts with English language classes specific to farming terms. Students also take finance classes and learn to farm a variety of crops.

The institute will work to find apprenticeships for those in the program during their second year. And by the third year, the refugees will be able to apply for a loan through the agency to lease or buy small plots of land for farming, usually in urban areas. That’s considered an important aspect of the program since most refugees lack credit history to apply for a traditional bank loan.

Ranga Ghimirey, 56, a Bhutanese who has lived in the United States for about two years, looks at several flats of seedlings in a small greenhouse on the farm and doesn’t like what he sees.

“These are too hot. Give more water,” he said.

Ghimirey and other Bhutanese plant lettuce in one of the 20 long berms, which measure 50 feet each. With help from farm coordinator Whitney Sewell,they use their fingers to dig rows of holes, drop in seedlings and then water each one with a spray bottle.

Another student, Mehret Sintayehu Zegeye, worked for the ministry of agriculture in Ethiopia before fleeing to Kenya nine years ago. He is now using his expertise to help others in the St. Louis program.

“Many refugees come here and just get lost,” said Zegeye, 34, who has been in the U.S. for about five months, now working at a convenience store.

“The reality is that America is a land of opportunity and you can do what you want to do. If it’s agriculture, I want to help boost them up.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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