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Community Farm Grows Refugee Businesses

Bilali Muya cares freshly picked carrots to the sink for washingBilali Muya helps refugees sell their produce at farmers markets. | Photo Credit: Megan Burks

By Megan Burks

Image of Osman MugangaOsman Muganga started farming to stretch his food budget | Photo Credit: Megan Burks

Osman Muganga rattled off the Somali names for tomatoes, corn and potatoes from his plot at the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights. He recounted what he fixed his wife for dinner the night before, reciting his recipe in full. He’ll teach his kids how to tend to the tamaandho, galley and baradhdho during the coming weekend.

Food is his passion. It started on his family’s farm in Somalia, grew during his time as a chef at the U.S. Embassy there, and remains despite his U.S. trade as a custodian.

Like many people, especially refugees with language barriers and few transferable job skills, Muganga took any job that would pay the rent. His plot at the community garden started as way to reconnect with the soil on weekends and bring his family healthy food on a small budget. But his mature plants are steadily turning his passion into a job opportunity.

New Roots farmers began selling fruits and vegetables at the City Heights Farmers Market six months ago and recently expanded to the market in southeastern San Diego. They’re now preparing orders for specialty vendors and looking to partner with restaurants. Though not yet a viable source of income, Muganga’s plot is already providing him with supplemental funds and a venture he enjoys.

“This is what they love, what they do,” said Bilali Muya, a farm educator who’s spearheading its micro-enterprise efforts. “It’s confusing when you give [refugees] a job as a dishwasher. Fundamentally, we should give them a job they like.”

Image of Magene MusaThe community farm is a gathering place for Magene Musa and her friends. | Photo Credit: Megan Burks

“I could find secondary income somewhere else, but I wouldn’t have a fantastic time like with this job,” said Magene Musa, a childcare worker who tends her plot in a long dress that billows in the wind.

Muganga and Musa make $50 to $100 each day they contribute greens to the New Roots booth, according to Muya. If they expand and host their own booth, they could make as much as $300. That number increases with each additional San Diego market at which a grower sells. The opportunity is similar for residents who sell produce grown in their backyards or prepare hot food dishes from their home kitchens to sell at the market.

“The market is now a job incubator,” said Anchi Mei, a program manager for the International Rescue Committee San Diego. “This is an easier first step to becoming an independent farmer or food business owner. This is easier than setting up your own farm and getting into a supermarket.”

And it’s a welcome first step for refugee men who have yet to find footing in the San Diego job market. Somali Bantu women have forged a clear path to employment as childcare workers in recent years. Their resourcefulness is largely due to the fact that many lost their husbands to violence back home. The few refugee men who made it to the United States don’t have as strong of a network to guide them.

“Most of the men don’t have jobs and depend on welfare,” said Muya. “They try to do whatever they can, pick up odd jobs, because traditionally it’s shameful for women to work.”

Farming is a welcome option. Standing in the middle of his plot, Muganga looked proud and sure. He used the small piece of land as his stage, from which he presented his bullet wounds and recounted the tragedy that brought him to San Diego. Though vulnerable in that moment, he was in control of his life once more.

The IRC San Diego is working to expand this sense of independence. Muya said he is looking for larger plots of land to replicate the successes of New Roots, which celebrates its second anniversary Saturday at 4 p.m. The 2.3-acre strip of land was transformed by the IRC San Diego in 2008 and is already shared among more than 80 families.

The nonprofit also launched an entrepreneurial agriculture program at the Tierra Miguel Farm in Pauma Valley, Calif. The program trains refugees to farm on a larger scale and teaches them the know-how needed to lease land and operate a business.

For now, Muganga said he is happy with the smaller harvests, which allow him to spend time with his children and cook meals for his wife. But Muganga, who began collecting disability after being injured last September, may have to open himself to the food business once more. His former employer just told him that the disability checks won’t be coming anymore.


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