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Putting down roots in Canadian soil

With farmers like Peter Nikkel helping Raymond Ngarboui, refugees from the world’s trouble spots are getting a new chance

Before we even exchange our first word, I get a sense of Raymond Ngarboui. When we meet, he’s on the phone with a refugee settlement counsellor who asks if he might have garden plots available for two families from Burundi, recently arrived in Winnipeg and feeling stressed and isolated. This is 43-year-old Ngarboui’s side-project but full-time passion. The plots being talked about are in the Rainbow Community Garden, his brainchild and a haven in the city’s south end since 2008 for recently arrived refugees and immigrants to Canada.

Rainbow Community Garden is more than just a place to grow food and flowers as a hobby; it’s a place where newcomers to the country can grow food they are familiar with while saving on their grocery bills. Along with crops you can find typically find in Manitoba, producers here are growing leaves and vegetables from tropical parts of the world that are difficult to find in the city.

Ngarboui gives me a tour of the site, which is situated on the grounds of the University of Manitoba, not far from the stadium where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers play. It is divided into asymmetrical plots. The bigger the family, the larger the plot they receive. Along one side there is a row of raised beds, reserved for kids aged five to 10, and higher beds for those 75 and up. As we walk amid the rows, Raymond picks up a shovel that someone has left lying on the ground and later uses it to attack an unwanted weed.

Ngarboui speaks from experience when he says it’s hard to adjust to food in Canada. Even when vegetables native to the newcomers’ home countries can be found, they are usually of poor quality and expensive. Ngarboui collects requests for seeds from the growers and places orders with companies in Canada and abroad. He’s also made connections with local garden centres that donate seeds and seedlings once the early summer rush has passed. After the first growing season, seeds are saved for future planting.

According to the Government of Manitoba, of the 16,175 newcomers to the province in 2014, 9.2 per cent, or 1,495, were refugees. Manitoba received the highest number of refugees per capita in Canada in that year. When they first arrive, many refugee families live in apartment buildings in downtown Winnipeg. They may not be familiar with public parks, or know where to take their kids, so they stay inside. This affects both physical and mental health.

Ngarboui tells the story of the oldest gardener, an 89-year-old man, originally from India. He was diabetic and had high blood pressure. Two months after joining the garden, Ngarboui recounts that the man’s family doctor said, “‘Oh! Your health has improved a lot. Did you go to the gym? What have you been doing lately?’ And he said, ‘No, I did not go to the gym, but I’ve been gardening.’” The doctor encouraged him to continue as his health had dramatically improved. “That’s how he became even more interested in gardening.”

Turning the soil

The story of the Rainbow Community Garden cannot be separated from Ngarboui’s own. Ngarboui was born in the early years of Chad’s decades-long civil war. Chad is situated in central Africa, and is the continent’s fifth-largest country. Despite having to regularly flee his home throughout his childhood, Ngarboui completed Grade 12 and studied agriculture at the university level. In his mid-20s, he fled Chad for neighbouring Cameroon, one of tens of thousands of Chadians seeking refuge in that country.

In Cameroon he received a bursary through the United Nations to return to school and he graduated with a degree in business and co-operative management. Another bursary followed, and this time he studied human resources. At the same time, he was working with his fellow refugees to start gardens and raise chickens to help families get income to pay for their children’s school fees. His work didn’t go unnoticed.

The first step is gardening on a small scale, learning how to grow the crops they loved before war and exploitation forced them into refugee camps and a foreign world. photo: Stephanie McDonald

On a visit to the country, a delegation from the United Nations Development Program was told about the project Ngarboui had initiated, and they made a visit. The head of the delegation asked Ngarboui if he was interested in resettlement in Canada.

The Canadian immigration agent who interviewed him told him that he’d be a good fit for three locations — Laval, Winnipeg and Edmonton. He was advised that as a French speaker the integration process would be the easiest in Laval. After hearing about the three places Ngarboui declared that he wanted to go to Winnipeg. He was told that it was very cold there and while he wasn’t being advised not to go, he was warned that the adjustment period would be difficult.

“I asked if there were people living there. She said, ‘Yes, there are people living there.’ I said, ‘If there are people living there, it means I can live there too, so I will go there.’” Since high school, Ngarboui had been interested in learning English, but hadn’t had the opportunity.

After touching down in Winnipeg in September 2005 he enrolled in English as a Second Language classes and started to look for work opportunities.

“At that time I gathered information about farming here, the possibilities and opportunities. I realized that farming here was more of a family enterprise… So I said, ‘Okay, it’s better to do something else.’” He was on a break during a night shift as a cleaner at the University of Winnipeg when a sign on a bulletin board caught his eye. Lower-income individuals were invited to apply for a program on community development offered by the Community Education Development Association (CEDA) at Red River College. As soon as his shift ended he raced to CEDA to express his interest. Since then, Ngarboui has gone from being a student, to board member, to being hired as an employee of CEDA in 2009, where he still works today.

For his school assignments, Ngarboui would talk to Indigenous and newcomer families to find out what their needs were and what facilities and infrastructure were lacking in their neighbourhoods. He was also volunteering at a market in downtown Winnipeg where people were asking for fresh food. “That’s how the idea of the garden came out, to supply the market with produce. And also to find a place where newcomer families and refugees could take their kids in the summertime, and to grow their own food and save on their groceries.”

Sowing the seeds

Together with members of his church, Ngarboui approached the City of Winnipeg to see if they might have land available that fit the criteria for his envisioned garden. It had to be accessible by bus, and in a place where families could spend time without being disturbed. The city didn’t have any land that fit the bill, but referred Ngarboui to the University of Manitoba, located in southern Winnipeg.

The university provided land that was previously used as a garden by their plant science department. It ticked a lot of boxes that Ngarboui was looking for: it was remote, quiet, and removed from the bustle of downtown. Kids could run around freely.

The garden was named Rainbow Community Garden, borrowed from the metaphor of the “rainbow nation,” used to describe post-apartheid South Africa. In 2008, its first season, 16 families had garden plots. In 2017, there are over 300 families gardening on six sites, representing 29 nationalities. About 60 per cent of the gardeners are ethnic Nepali refugees from Bhutan who were expelled from the country in the early 1990s. Another 30 per cent are from African countries, and the remainder are South American, Middle Eastern or Canadian-born.

Priority is given to single mothers, then families with at least four members and a senior, then families of six or more. Immigrants with a background in social work are also given priority, and are available to talk to families who may need advice about problems they’re encountering. Most of the gardeners arrived in Canada by way of refugee camps. “When they meet here, they open up, sharing their memories from refugee camps and from their home, the atrocities that they went through. Many times you can see them talking and starting to cry. You can see the tears coming. And after a while they start laughing,” Ngarboui says.

x photo: Stephanie McDonald

Demand quickly outpaced the supply of garden plots available at the university site, and it was difficult to find more land. Ngarboui started to approach churches and schools about using their backyards. He also put out the call to individuals, asking if their empty backyards could be used.

“The first person who responded to my call was the former lieutenant governor, the late John Harvard. He said ‘Okay, I heard what you’ve been doing and I’m very excited to have you use my backyard.’ It’s a huge backyard. I went there and found that five families can use his backyard. We used it for three years before he sold the house.”

Ngarboui has also worked with building owners and managers to get raised beds built near to apartment buildings where newcomer families live.

Help from a farmer

The families are gardening on six sites in Winnipeg and dotted throughout southern Manitoba. And this is still not enough. “We’ve been working on finding more land, because we have a waiting list this year of 49 families,” Ngarboui says.

One of the six sites is on the home farm of Peter Nikkel, who farms 1,200 acres with his brother, close to Landmark, an hour’s drive southeast from downtown Winnipeg. The two first met when Ngarboui was trying to get the downtown market off the ground. Nikkel had had good yields that year and wanted to check out the potential of selling surplus vegetables at the market. One thing led to another. He was invited to the spring and fall celebrations at the garden and then Ngarboui asked if he might have land available for gardeners to use.

For the past four years, Nikkel has provided two to three acres of what used to be a cow pasture, surrounded by a windbreak. It’s divided into plots for four different groups to use. He says that some years are better than others. “One year you’ll have really good production. You have your reliable crops, like potatoes, carrots, onions, peas, beets. Those are almost one hundred percent. Then the next year you’ll have a cooler weather year, like two years ago, when the warm-weather crops like beans, tomatoes, peppers, often don’t do well.” The Red River clay and the climate aren’t always amenable to growing preferred plants like okra. “So sometimes it works and sometimes not. Sometimes it’s disappointing to drive out of the city, put all the trouble and work into it and in the end get very little or nothing.”

As to why he provides a few acres for the gardeners, Nikkel says, “It’s a bit of charity, it’s a bit of a hobby, it’s self-sufficiency.” He says that most farm people have a long history with gardening. “We like to have that independence of growing our own food. It’s the same as with these people.” And Nikkel’s own mother arrived in Canada as a refugee from Ukraine in the 1940s.

Nikkel says that charity work is part of the fabric of life in the area he lives in. A lot of his neighbours visit projects in Haiti, Bangladesh, or in different countries in Africa, but for him, that work happens just beyond his front door. In the process, he says he’s “learned a lot of stuff, a lot of things about how life works. About different cultures and how difficult it all is. It’s very tough.”

For many of the gardeners, Nikkel is their link to rural Manitoba. On different days throughout the summer he’ll cook some of his chickens over a fire and the gardeners will prepare dishes. Nikkel says this sharing of food outside can remind people of home, an experience they’re no longer able to have living in a downtown apartment. And for him, the expense of travel for new experiences is a non-issue. “I don’t need to go to the country to get the taste, it comes to me.”

"It’s the same as with these people,” says farmer Peter Nikkel, whose mother arrived as a Ukrainian refugee in the 1940s. “We like to have the independence of growing our own food.” photo: Stephanie McDonald

Interacting with the newcomers and hearing their stories gives him something to think about as he drives his tractor around and around a field. It’s also made his dinnertime conversations more interesting. “You go to dinner and you have stories. I could talk about soybeans, whether I’ve harvested 38 bushels or 50 bushels, but who cares. The cropping, prices, and futures, I know all that stuff, but it gets boring pretty quickly. People just don’t want to hear about it. But with culture, religion, relationships, whatever people do, it’s huge, it’s what people like to talk about.”

But most of all, he continues to provide space for gardeners because Ngarboui asks him each year if he will. He admires Ngarboui’s skill in building up the project and getting the university, corporations and newcomers all on board, something most people wouldn’t be able to accomplish.

“I would’ve given up on it long ago. But Ngarboui doesn’t. He just keeps working at it. So it’s hard to say ‘No, I’m not going to help, I don’t care. I only care about making my own money, the rest of the world can go and do whatever it wants.’ Once you know somebody, you get along with someone, and you have the resources to help, why wouldn’t you help?”

Over the years, Ngarboui has been nominated for and won a number of awards for his work with the Rainbow Community Garden. This past April he won one of the 2017 Premier’s Volunteer Service Awards. He was told that the award was recognition of the fact that the garden — which has never received any government support — was a good example for both immigrants and Canadian-born of how newcomers can contribute to society.

It takes up a lot of time to find land, procure seeds, organize events, and build relationships with the gardeners, local businesses and supporters. But when I ask Ngarboui why he does the work with the garden on top of his day job, he doesn’t hesitate with his answer. “I’ve benefited a lot. If I’m who I am today it is thanks to the help that I received from people in my communities. I was seven or eight, walking distances to escape civil war, and I was being carried by adults for a distance. One picked me up, and then another one, to reach wherever we were going. And the food was always shared. I grew up in a situation where I couldn’t survive without help from the others around me.”

Sharing the harvest

A great deal of sharing happens within and across the garden plots. Many of the gardeners were farmers in their home countries, so grandparents and parents share their knowledge with younger family members. And then there’s the sharing of seeds and practices.

The gardeners from African countries have become hooked on eating the leaves of the sweet pepper plants, as the Filipinos do. “They found it so delicious and started eating it as well. Now, many of them, instead of the fruit, they rely more on the leaves. Sometimes you will see the peppers without leaves,” Ngarboui says.

He also tells the story of a woman from Liberia who was growing a lot of sweet potatoes in a plot close to his. He assumed she was growing them for the roots, as his family had done back home in Chad. “Usually we remove the leaves and throw them away and just eat the roots,” Ngarboui says. “So I asked, ‘How long will it be taking for you to get the sweet potatoes?’ And she said, ‘No, no, no, I am growing them for the leaves.’ I found it a little bit strange, but I did not say anything.”

Then, at one of the monthly potlucks Ngarboui tried a dish he found very tasty. Turns out it was made from sweet potato leaves. That night, he called his mother in Chad and told her, “‘You know what? The sweet potato leaves that we’ve been throwing away are a nutritious food and we should not throw them away again.’” His mother cooked it for her friends, and now all of them are eating the leaves.

Putting down roots

There was a 100 per cent chance of rain one evening when I visited the garden, so only a few families came by to tend to their plots. Ngarboui said that it’s usually full until sunset. There was a couple with their young son who had come to do some weeding. Ngarboui greeted them in Nepali. They were originally from Bhutan, but the man left as a young boy. His family lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 20 years before being resettled in Winnipeg in 2011. He has four brothers and calls Ngarboui his fifth. They shared the news with Ngarboui that they had bought a house and would move in the next week.

It’s a moment I often replay in my mind.Ngarboui shakes their hands. As I watch, he congratulates them.

Other farmers, other projects

Harry and Kathe Harder
Clavet, Sask.

Harry and Kathe Harder have a 300-ewe flock in Clavet, Sask., 25 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon. Harry estimates that more than 50 per cent of their farm-gate customers came to Canada as either refugees or immigrants. The Harders have a map of the world on their kitchen wall, where they put a star on each country they’ve had a customer from. There are 75 stars on the map.

It’s a family-run operation, but when they need an extra pair of hands on the farm, such as to build a corral, they will hire recently arrived Syrian refugees. Many are skilled construction workers. Communication isn’t an issue, as Harry speaks Arabic, which he learned as a service worker with Mennonite Central Committee in the Middle East over 30 years ago.

“Many would like to farm,” Harry says of the newcomers he interacts with. “They have a different paradigm and could do something quite positive for farming in Canada.”

Quinte Immigration Services
Quinte Region, Ont.

Since May 2016 the Quinte Immigration Services of Quinte Region, northeast of Toronto, has been running the program Farmers Feed the World. There were two factors at play in starting the program: Quinte Immigration learned that 25 per cent of the Syrian refugees coming to Ontario had some farming experience, and several counties in the region faced a labour shortage in the agricultural sector.

The original intent of the program was to provide information in Arabic to Syrian refugees on agriculture in Ontario. It was quickly observed that finding a job was the top priority for the 150 participants, anxious to be self-sufficient as one year of government financial assistance drew to a close.

Arabic-speaking staff conducted one-on-one interviews with the project participants to gather information on their skills and agricultural experience in Syria. They were then matched with farmers and employers in the agrifood sector who had job opportunities available.

Another component of the project was an event in Belleville, where potential employers from the Quinte Region and Syrian refugees looking for work could meet.

“As a result of this project, 60 per cent of participants obtained some form of employment or self-employment in the agrifood sector,” says Orlando Ferro, executive director of Quinte Immigration Services.

Rod Olson,
Calgary, Alta.

Rod Olson is an urban farmer in Calgary, Alta., growing vegetables in 35 backyards across the city. He sells his produce to restaurants, farmers markets, and a harvest box program.

In the past he’s hired newcomers from Ethiopia and Eritrea to work with him, and last summer he and his business partner employed three Syrian refugees, one of whom had farming experience.

In late 2016 the Alberta government put out a Request for Proposals for 20 acres of provincial land on Calgary’s transportation utility corridor. Olson is a member of a group that submitted a proposal focused on making the land available for newcomers to Canada to grow and sell food. Their proposal was selected, and while there are still a few steps to go before it’s a fait accompli, if all goes according to plan, they will be on the land this spring.

Three initiatives are planned. The first is a community garden with 20 to 30 plots for newcomers, where they can grow food for their families. The second is an apprenticeship program which will be run by Olson and another urban farmer for two to four people, to teach both about farming in the city and on the sales side of the business. The final piece is to have five parcels of land available for entrepreneurs, where they could start out on their own with an agrifood business. There would be the potential to grow foods that newcomers to Canada are missing.

“I know the value of having my own hand in the soil,” Olson says. “Because these people have been displaced, I think that there is nothing more profound than planting a seed, seeing it grow, and then consuming what the earth has given you. There’s a sense of home and stability that comes when you can do that, and that’s been ripped away from any newcomer. And so if we’ve got this land, then why can’t we let them have that experience.”

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