Life in Refugee Camps
Although Abdullah “Abdi” Sundi’s family had farmed in Somalia for years, Abdi never learned how. In 1991, when he was just a boy, a bloody civil war broke out in his homeland. As a member of the Somali Bantu people, an ethnic group descended from Bantu tribes in Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania who were enslaved and brought to Somalia, Abdi and his family were considered second-class citizens. During the war, Somali Bantus were systematically stripped of their land and forced to make a dangerous trek across the border to Kenya to live in crowded refugee camps. What followed was an exodus of people tramping the barren, dusty landscape in the scorching heat, some for hundreds of miles; many succumbed en route, compelling mothers and fathers, sons and daughters to leave their loved ones behind. It’s the kind of life event that leaves lasting and irreparable scars.
In the camps, instead of practicing the traditional farming methods that had sustained them for generations, Abdi and his family had to rely on donations of food from the United Nations World Food Programme. The camps offered no opportunity to grow the types of delicious staple crops they were accustomed to, such as African maize, a nutrient-rich variety of corn that is hardier than its American cousin.
Abdi and his family lived at Dadaab Refugee Camp on the flat, windswept border of Somalia and Kenya. Their stay at Dadaab was supposed to be temporary, but it turned out to last more than a decade, when they were moved to another refugee camp—Kakuma in northern Kenya. While living in leaky, makeshift huts with iron sheets for roofs, he discovered how difficult life in camps can be with minimal medical aid, little water, no electricity, and no firewood to cook the all-too meager supply of food supplied by the United Nations Refugee Agency. To this day, the UN’s World Food Programme warns that more than 400,000 refugees still living in Kenya’s refugee camps face chronic food shortages.
Like many of his generation, Abdi’s formative years were spent in these tough conditions. Since the Kenyan government does not allow refugees to leave the camps to settle in Kenya, camps have become de facto prisons for people who have committed no crimes. Refugees are able to find work doing odd jobs, but it’s a hardscrabble life. The only solution is to find a way out.
When the United States named the Somali Bantus a priority group for resettlement in 1999, it paved the way for people like Abdi and his family to come to America to start a new life.
A New Beginning
When Abdi arrived in Buffalo in August of 2004, he couldn’t speak English and had little formal education. But he possessed something that had been missing in his life—hope for a better future. He was soon joined in Buffalo by other members of the Somali Bantu community, including, in December of that year his mother, Mageney Mukoma.
For Mageney, the hardest part about moving to Western New York was the weather. Imagine you’re a woman who’d spent her entire life in a dry, sun-baked region of Africa who suddenly finds herself in Buffalo—in December—as a heavy lake effect storm buries the city in piles of cold snow.
Before she’d been forced into refugee camps with her family during the Somali civil war, like nearly all Somali Bantus, Mageney had been a farmer. She could leave her house and pluck fresh, tasty vegetables from her own garden and eat them on the spot. She grew African maize, cabbages, green peppers, kale, onions, and other crops to feed her seven children. In Buffalo, however, she lived in small apartments with no place to grow anything. This is a common refrain for nearly all of the approximately 50,000 Somali Bantus scattered in cities throughout the United States: lack of farmland. But in Buffalo, all that began to change in 2017 when the community banded together with a singular vision.
A Farm Takes Root
2017 was the year, more than a decade after many of Buffalo’s Somali Bantu community arrived, that a number of individuals within the community led a grassroots effort to get back to their farming roots. Since then, that movement has grown to encompass refugees from multiple nations as well as members of the Black community, and it has spawned Providence Farm Collective (PFC), the only non-profit farm offering education and secure, long-term land tenure to immigrant, refugee, and Black farmers in Western New York.
Two of the nearly two dozen Somali Bantu voices in the grassroots effort are Mahamud “Mo” Mberwa and his wife, Hawa Mukumbira. They arrived in Buffalo in 2006 with two young children after spending the previous fourteen years at refugee camps in Kenya. Though they were grateful to be in the United States, they had no access to land and were reliant on the fruits and vegetables that were trucked to local grocery stores, often from a great distance. Like Abdi and many others, Mo had no experience farming due to his time in the camps, but that didn’t stop him—and the others—from envisioning a place where Somali Bantus living in Buffalo could have access to farmland where they could grow culturally relevant food, just as they had back home.
Mo, Hawa, and the others thus conceived of the Somali Bantu Community Farm. Designed as a pilot program, it cut straight to the heart of community needs by addressing food insecurity and farmland inequity. When local farmers stepped up and granted them the use of land in East Aurora, south of Buffalo, the pilot program took off. Soon, members of Buffalo’s Somali Bantu community—hungry for a place to grow their own food—were getting up early in the morning and, for the first time, planting and cultivating crops in Western New York’s rich soil. Such was the importance of access to food and farmland that, even as community members carpooled, as many as 20 cars were parked at the farm on any given day. (Thanks to a grant from the United Way and General Mills, a 15-person van has shuttled PFC farmers to and from Buffalo since 2018.)
The benefits Mo has seen include getting fresh vegetables and earning money to support the Somali Bantu’s after-school program. “The health benefits have also been important for our community,” Mo says, “Many of our elders work at the farm. They do not stay home but now spend time outside farming. Everyone is eating fresh vegetables that are important to our traditions.”
The venture has been so successful that, in 2020, PFC moved to a 37-acre site in Orchard Park, NY that they lease from a board member for only a dollar a year. This site has room to grow. In fact, PFC is partnering with the Western New York Land Conservancy—the largest land trust in Western New York—on a joint $2.3 million capital campaign to “Plant the Future of Farming.” If the two organizations are able to meet their fundraising goal by the end of this year, Providence Farm Collective will purchase the farm, add needed facilities, and sustain it into the future. The Land Conservancy will place a conservation easement on the farm, protecting it forever. PFC farmers will then have a permanent location to grow their crops and raise goats and chickens.
Today, the vision of a self-sustaining community farm championed by a group of Somali Bantus has grown to serve Buffalo’s Black community and refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Liberia, providing food security for a wide range of Western New Yorkers and bolstering the local economy in the process.
Rosa Meh and Soe Reh were born and raised in Burma, now known as Myanmar, as members of the Karenni people—a distinct sub-group within
Myanmar that faces discrimination by the ruling military regime. It’s a sadly familiar story. Under the constant threat of terror, the Karenni people were forced to flee to the Ban Nai Soi Refugee Camp along the border in neighboring Thailand. This isolated camp is located deep in the dense jungle, and it’s cut off from the main electrical grid; the small bamboo huts are wedged in tight, yet they house thousands of people. When she left Myanmar for Ban Nai Soi in 1989, Rosa Meh was an eighteen-year-old medical student, and though she put her studies to good use while serving as a camp nurse, it was a difficult life. When she was pregnant with her three children, for example, she was forced to work nights, and she was never given any time off—even when her kids were sick. In 2009, she was finally able to leave Ban Nai Soi for Buffalo.
Soe Reh arrived in the United States in the same year, after similar experiences at Ban Nai Soi (though Soe Reh and Rosa Meh never met while in the camp). Back in Myanmar, Soe Reh’s family grew rice, peanuts, peppers, pumpkins, cucumbers, and eggplants, but in the camp, their ability to grow food was severely limited. Like Rosa Meh, due to a language barrier, he struggled to find a good job in Buffalo, and they each relied on government assistance to scrape by. Although they both have jobs today—Rosa Meh in a warehouse, Soe Reh in a bottle recycling plant—they have found a different kind of home at Providence Farm Collective, where thanks to PFC’s Community Plot Program they grow many of the same crops they did back home: pumpkins, chilies, eggplants, green beans, and cucumbers.
Local, state, and federal funders have added to the farm’s success. This past year, PFC applied for and received the highly-competitive Farmers Market Promotion Program grant for $477,000 from the USDA to create a farmers’ market in Buffalo’s west side, where many of PFC’s farmers live. The market will provide a location for PFC farmers to sell their niche, traditional crops—including African maize, amaranth, roselle, hot peppers, and African and Asian eggplants. During the course of the summer, PFC farmers will even receive additional training and technical assistance to promote and sell their produce to lower-income communities with little access to fresh food. This is a victory for everyone.
Although they’ve overcome tremendous obstacles to get here, PFC farmers are planting strong roots in Western New York—and doing so as their own change agents. They strive to make a positive difference, for their communities, their families, and future generations. With a little assistance from donors, PFC farmers may soon get to watch their roots grow permanently in soil they can call their own.
Donate: Help Providence Farm Collective and the Western New York Land Conservancy reach their $2.3 million capital campaign, donate at wnylc.org/donate or call 716-687-1225.
Kyle Semmel is a writer, translator, and communications manager of the Western New York Land Conservancy. He can be reached at email@example.com.