Uprooted and transplanted
Uprooted and transplanted
Snowflakes fall gently on Salt City Harvest Farm in Syracuse on a bracing March day. In the distance, almost indiscernible, raspberry and blackberry vines entwine themselves around a fence two-feet high. On one side of the fence, a snow-blanketed hops farm and a vineyard occupy five acres. On the other, the whitened land awaits the spring thaw when refugees will plant fresh vegetables and fruits. As they’ve done for the past three years, Somali farmers will plant corn, beans, and three-foot-long squash. Bhutanese and Nepali farmers will tend the marigold flowers lining the perimeter of the land’s subplots to ward off pests from their tomatoes, peppers, and mustard greens.
Manika Gautam is one such farmer in Syracuse. She lives in the Northside with her husband, her father-in-law and her three children — two minutes don’t pass without Ushan, her youngest, bawling for attention and chomping down with his few teeth on whatever comes his way, be it paper or pencil. Her father-in-law sits cross-legged on the floor, his back against a wall, keeping a wary eye on his grandson. Posters of Hindu gods and goddesses — Krishna, Ganapati, Durga and Lakshmi— are prominent on the walls, which are festooned with tiny Christmas lights, still twinkling at 3 in the afternoon. Just as prominent are the pictures of Gautam’s family from Nepal: her kids when they were younger, selfies with her husband, and Gautam with her in-laws as well as her sister’s family, smiling happily in front of a temple.
Originally Nepali and married to a Bhutanese refugee, 33-year-old Gautam used to live in the Morang district of Nepal. She grew up going to a government school where the curriculum was conducted all in Nepali — Nepali public schools conduct classes primarily in Nepali and English as a mode of instruction was offered only in private schools, according to World Education News + Reviews. She studied up to the 10th grade, after which she left school, spending her days on the family’s farm, selling their food in the market and making occasional trips to the border Nepal shares with India, hoping to secure more produce.
At the age of 27, she left Nepal — “many things are no good there,” she says, speaking of “many rapes and murders” — and arrived in Syracuse in 2013, with her husband and oldest daughter, Unisha, in tow. Her parents in law had already moved to the States when she moved. Today, the trips home to Nepal are few and far in between and she keeps up with what’s going on in her homeland by watching videos on Facebook and YouTube.
“I feel so sad,” she says about watching these videos. Though Gautam never personally encountered the problems that worried her so, she wanted to ensure a future free of crime and unrest for her family.
“Free to live,” she said through heavily accented broken English when asked why she left. “Free to work, better life and education for children. I’m thinking good life.”
Achieving the good life hasn’t been easy. The snowy Syracuse winters overwhelmed Gautam, who was used to living and farming in far more temperate conditions. She remembers her family and friends lending her jackets to help her through her first winter. She had no command of English.
“First time, I am afraid because there is so much snow and no English. That’s why I’m afraid, ‘what do I do?’” she remembers thinking.
She had two more children in the next five years, time that she also spent learning how to integrate and apply for U.S. citizenship. Deciding to work on her English, she enrolled in classes and that’s where she first learned about a farming opportunity for refugees like herself.
“My teacher said ‘anybody like farming?’ and I liked farming,” she says. “So that’s why I participate[d]. In my country, I am always farming.”
Gautam began farming through the Syracuse Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP), a three-year $100,000 federal grant aimed at providing refugees a chance to farm and grow healthy, culture-specific produce to sell at markets and to provide their families with a reliable source of food. The RAPP three-year grant, first established in 2011 by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, served 14 farming projects in the U.S. In 2016, 15 more refugee-service organizations in ten states — Kentucky, New York, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Georgia, to name a few — across the country received this funding for the first time.
One of these organizations was Syracuse’s Refugee and Immigrant Self-Empowerment (RISE), which aims to provide employment, education and social support for refugees and immigrants in Onondaga County, NY. The Syracuse RAPP program, funded by the grant, takes participants through English, business and marketing classes, all the while educating refugees about seasons, irrigation and plant varieties and terminology specific to American farm production — one class, for instance, is devoted to teaching them which parts of the plant are connected with potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous production, respectively. The same class teaches them about planting like seeds in rows — “one bed, one family.”
“One of the challenges refugees face is that they come from much warmer climates than Syracuse and so they don’t really understand how the seasons change and what happens to the crops,” says Brandy Colebrook, the Syracuse RAPP coordinator. “So we have to explain to them that ‘this is what you need to plant at this time’ and that’s really a big thing with them.”
Each year, the farmers get a slightly bigger plot on which to grow their plants and by the end of the three years, the hope is that the farmers either have full-fledged businesses or simply a reliable means to feed their families and neighborhoods.
Gautam had visited Salt City Harvest Farm’s community garden in 2014, but began formally farming there in 2017 with 15 other refugees, armed with a little more bookkeeping, business knowledge, and English. In 2018, she planted rice, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, spicy white radish and lentils, each of which was turned into dal, saag, curry and pickle. She calls spicy white radish moola, chuckling that “people no mostly like.” At the mention of cucumbers and tomatoes, Gautam’s second daughter Usha squeals in delight — they are among her favorite ingredients in the soups that her mother makes.
“All,” Gautam says quickly with a smile, when asked which of her Nepali dishes are favorites in the house.
Though Nepali homemade food still finds its mark, her kids all love “U.S. food” now, she says. Pasta is no stranger to Gautam’s kitchen.