A small community of Burundian refugees are leasing an urban farm in the hope that it will give them a toehold in America.

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Serges Hakizimana got off the plane and was awe-struck.

He had been traveling for three days, all the way from a refugee camp in Africa to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In two bags, he carried everything he owned.

On that summer afternoon two years ago, each sight was a revelation. The roads were so busy, so big — nothing like where he came from. And the lines of cars: Why do they simply stop, as if on command? A light had changed colors, he was told, as if that explained anything.

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Hakizimana is Burundian, but he’s never been to his homeland. In 1972, before he was born, Burundi was wracked by ethnic violence. Hundreds of thousands faced a choice: flee or be killed. The lucky ones wound up in refugee camps far from home. For decades, these “1972 Burundians” have lived in limbo — one of the most protracted refugee situations on the planet.

Hakizimana was born and raised in those camps. It is a life, he said, where you don’t think about the future. You just survive.

Then, in 2006, the United States agreed to accept some of the refugees. He is among about 8,000 who have arrived since then.

These newcomers, most of them unable to speak English, had no idea how to find work. Nor did they completely grasp that they would nonetheless be required to pay their rent.

“They say you’ll be fine in U.S.,” Hakizimana, 29, explained. “Now you have somewhere to call home.”

It was harder than he could have ever imagined.

The story of Hakizimana and his comrades swings between hope and despair. The Burundians’ visions of life in America — of going to college, of first-world opportunities — were shattered. Instead, they took jobs washing dishes until the wee hours in hotel kitchens, if they were lucky enough to find anything at all. They have been weighed down by isolation.

Yet they have stumbled onto a new path, one that, even in this modern world, takes them back to their roots. Which is how Hakizimana and the others wound up planting potatoes amid the industrial warehouses of Kent.

Community comes first

It is difficult, as Americans, to understand all that it means to be a Burundian refugee.

You live for decades in isolated camps on foreign soil.

You have few rights. You can’t return home.

You have a roof over your head, but no electricity. You are given a ration card for food. You wait in line at a pump for drinking water. You gather firewood for cooking. This can take all day.

You are likely illiterate, even in your native language of Kirundi.

Inside the Tanzania camp where Hakizimana lived, there are a few official jobs, like helping to dole out food, or teaching. Some Burundians created camp jobs for themselves: barber, cobbler, bicycle repairman. You risk arrest if you stray more than three miles from camp, so there are no other options for work.

It’s a hard life, Hakizimana said. But it’s like an old injury that never heals. After awhile, you just accept it and soldier on.

They practiced their Christian faith and maintained an ethic of sharing resources, putting community first. They held tight to their traditions and their language, so even the young, who have never set foot in Burundi, would know their homeland.

In 2006, the U.S. agreed to accept thousands of Burundians — just a small percentage of the total refugee population — for resettlement. Since then, about 185 have arrived in Washington state.

Hakizimana and the others thanked God for His blessings.

Adrift in the U.S.

Before departure, the refugees went through a three- to five-day training program — a tsunami of information covering the basics of life in America. They learned how to ride in an airplane; about hygiene; and about U.S. currency. They were told they would have to pay for food and shelter, that they must lock their doors at night, that they’d wash their clothes in machines.

In truth, they had no idea what they were up against. They faced a terrible job market in one of the most expensive areas of the country, without the skills that most Americans learn starting in youth.

There also were larger cultural issues at play. A few decades ago, it seemed there was an excitement about newly arriving refugees. Americans wanted to help. King County residents opened their homes, for example, to refugees from Southeast Asia. But with so many more arriving over the years, attitudes have shifted. Money has dried up.

Nonprofit refugee agencies found apartments for the Burundians in Tukwila and SeaTac and Everett, and bought furniture, kitchenware and clothes using federal money allotted for this purpose — $425 per person. The refugees got lessons on how to hunt for jobs, how to ride the bus. But day-to-day, they felt adrift, even misled.

Other refugee groups have long-established networks to help newcomers. Not the Burundians. Hardly anyone from their country had come before.

Hakizimana had it better than most, though. He understands four languages, including English, and was a high-school teacher in the camp. He’s the rare Burundian who has attended college. But that African education wasn’t helping him in America.

“The first thing I ask the case manager: where is college?” he recalled. “She said you are not here to go to school. You are here to work.”

Hakizimana did what was required. He and several of the other young men took low-wage jobs, the best they could do with their skills.

But he worried about the rest. Some spoke no English at all. Some were in their 50s and 60s. Others had young children. Sure, they had freedom in the U.S. But freedom to do what?

They grew hopeless.

“For 37 years in refugee camps, nobody thought to kill himself,” Hakizimana said. Here in the U.S., he said, Burundian men were contemplating suicide.

A plan, and hope

The winter before last, a group of Burundians met a woman at church who would change their lives: Njambi Gishuru, a native of Kenya who came here 20 years ago.

She noticed they were dressed in lightweight clothing, despite the chill. She learned they hadn’t turned on the heat in their apartments, that they were reluctant to run clothes through the washer.

“They were afraid because they had to pay for it,” Gishuru said. The fear was consuming them.

“How we used to be, we never pay rent,” Hakizimana recalled. “You don’t have a job but you still have a house. Here, you don’t pay rent and you’re out. You’re homeless.”

Gishuru works for an organization called Burst for Prosperity, which helps prepare people for jobs that will allow them to pull themselves up from poverty.

“You can’t do that with dish-washing, no matter how well you learn how to do it,” she said.

But what other jobs could the Burundians get with their limited experience?

They met and pondered and talked about possibilities.

Finally, they had an idea.

“We said, ‘We are farmers,’ ” Hakizimana recalled. “That was our job for 37 years outside our country.”

In the camps, they had supplemented their rations by growing vegetables. They even sold them in makeshift camp markets.

Gishuru left that meeting hopeful. But for weeks, the Burundians seemed to have disappeared.

It turns out they had gotten down to business.

“They already had it on paper, the cooperative structure … the guidelines. It was amazing,” she said.

And they had elected Hakizimana as their leader.

Burst was willing to give it a shot.

One afternoon this past spring, they introduced Hakizimana to a woman looking for someone to farm her land.

Longtime family farm

Joyce Barnier’s great-grandparents started farming in the Kent Valley in the 1800s; the pear trees they planted still stand outside their homestead. Her father was born there. Five generations have lived and farmed on the same land: corn, chickens, dairy cows, you name it.

“This is great land, you know?” she said recently. “Oh my, we produce corn like crazy here!”

Or rather, Barnier’s family used to grow corn like crazy. Just about everybody down there did.

An aerial shot of the Kent Valley from Barnier’s youth would show a sea of green. The area once supplied half of Seattle’s fresh milk and more than 70 percent of the produce consumed in Western Washington, according to historylink.org.

By 1972, when Hakizimana’s family fled Burundi, change was staring farmers in the face. Boeing had arrived, the first major industry to open up shop in the Valley. The Apollo Lunar Rover was built on what had been farmland. Other industries followed.

Parcel by parcel, the land went from produce to pavement. Today, Barnier’s farm is an anomaly. Finding it after passing by so many warehouses is almost surreal.

“We had wonderful land here and we’ve put the gravel over it,” Barnier said.

She isn’t able to put in the labor to keep things running. But she still wants to see her land farmed. A program started by King County that matches landowners with wannabe farmers has helped her lease it for the past couple years.

She was matched with the Burundians.

Hakizimana looked over the paperwork and signed his name. Eleven acres, one year, $2,500.

Not long after that, the Burundians stood outside Barnier’s house, bowed their heads, and prayed — for the land, for themselves, and for the people God sent to help them.

Hope Burundian Community Cooperative was born.

Help — and challenges

Burst would put up the money to get the Burundians started with seeds, equipment and the lease. The county offered staff expertise, helping with logistics and marketing ideas. Now they needed a real farmer, someone who could help the Burundians understand this foreign soil.

Bee Cha, an immigrant-farm specialist from the Washington State University Extension, knew the project would be hard. But he also knew it had been done before.

Nearly 30 years ago, King County had a large population of Hmong and Mien refugees from Laos. They, too, felt lost in their new country; there was talk of suicide.

In 1982, with $100,000 in grants and lots of help, they started the Indochinese Farm Project, planting vegetables on leased land near Woodinville.

The next year brought $50,000 in grants; more came after that. After a few years, the farmers became self-sufficient. You can see them every day, right there in the stalls at Pike Place Market.

“That money generated this whole industry here,” Cha said, noting there are now about 80 Hmong families farming in the region.

In some ways, the Hmong helped transform the culinary landscape, too, by growing Asian vegetables like bok choy, and giving Seattleites a taste of another world.

Cha saw the Indochinese project as a model for the Burundians. They could grow vegetables and sell them at South King County farmers markets.

There was one big difference: The Burundians would have to do it with a lot less money — only about $20,000 from Burst.

In some ways, the Burundians were luckier than most farmers. Who gets startup grants and free expert advisers?

But Cha soon realized the project would be more difficult than he imagined.

“You have to … struggle”

Back in Burundi and Tanzania, Celestine Sibomana managed farms. Now 56, he runs the cooperative’s Kent farm. Every morning, he gets on his bicycle and makes the five-mile trip. His crew rotates. Some come a few days a week, fitting a morning of farm work before their dish-washing jobs. Others juggle farm work around school. They come by bus, by bike, by foot.

Hakizimana works on the business end of things, setting up bank accounts and planning where and how to sell their produce.

Between everything, he gets just a few hours of sleep a night.

“That’s how life is,” he said. “You have to wait a little bit, struggle a little bit. But we have hope.”

Cha saw problems from the start, though. The tractor rental was delayed, so they didn’t get seeds in the ground until May and June. Just getting the field plowed cost $3,000.

Cha began to worry.

The Burundians had their own way of doing things, he realized, and sometimes their way didn’t make sense commercially.

They planted their potatoes one or two feet apart, instead of six inches as he had suggested. That was a huge issue: more weeding, more water, and less crop per acre, Cha said. Same with the corn.

Then there were the beans. What kind of beans? Cha doesn’t know. He says they bought bags of beans from Safeway and planted them.

Besides, the beans were planted scattershot — farmers call it “broadcast” — which is good for feeding your family but not for commercial enterprises. You can’t use a rototiller. Watering is a problem, too, because the plants get mashed by the hoses.

“I think they learned a lot,” Cha said gently.

Watering was an issue in and of itself. Initially, they had to water with a regular garden hose. With temperatures topping 100 degrees in August and not a drop of rain falling for a month, the soil looked like dirt clods. Gishuru recalls visiting the farm then.

“It looked like it was going to need a lot of help,” she said. “I kind of felt sad.”

One afternoon, Karen Kinney, from King County’s agriculture program, stopped by the farm to look at their progress. Standing under the big shade tree, she wondered aloud: How would they store all the harvested crops? How would they get them to market?

Everyone was silent for a moment, she recalled. And then they resumed talking about their immediate concerns. Those questions would have to wait.

But time was running out. At the first harvest, in mid-September, they still didn’t have a van to transport the produce. (They ended up borrowing one.) By now, the farmers-market season is almost over. And while most farmers offer an array of produce, they have just three vegetables.

“Everything is about passion,” Hakizimana said. “If you take this exit, you have to know it has corners, rocks. You have to be prepared to face these things. We know it is very difficult.

“But we have hope that tomorrow the sun will be shining on us.”

Farm has meaning for many

You can look at this project any number of ways, big and small.

Cha sees it as “an incubator.” Give the Burundians help in the beginning, and position them so they can fly off on their own.

Burst thinks it’s an idea that can work with other refugee groups. Today, there are more and more opportunities for newcomers to learn about farming through classes, including one taught by Cha. Somali Bantu and Burmese refugees are talking with Burst about starting farms here next year.

“They’re coming from a history of farming,” Kinney said. “They have that connection with the land.”

The result, she said, could be a transformation of the local landscape, and of what we think about when we picture local farmers.

Even Washington, D.C., is showing interest in the idea. The federal government recently awarded grants for other refugees, including groups in San Diego and Phoenix, to start small urban farms, too.

The timing is right. A decade or two ago, farmers markets were quaint throwbacks, few and far between. There wasn’t such demand for local food.

Hakizimana sees the farm as a way to keep his community together. Once despondent about his new life, he now rushes from job to job to job.

At times he seems exhausted. The Burundians all come to him with their problems, whether it’s paying the electric bill or dealing with depression. They expect him to solve everything.

“It’s tough being a leader,” he sighed.

He’s determined to maintain the ethic of his forefathers, who put the group’s well-being ahead of individualism. For now, he asks each family to chip in $20 per month to a community fund so there’s something to draw on when problems arise. He dreams of the day they will all be self-sufficient.

Gishuru sees the project in a more personal way. She remembers visiting the farm and seeing an older Burundian man who had taken the bus all the way from Everett.

“He had no skills to find a job,” she recalled. “He always stayed home in the apartment.”

The man had a piece of wood with him, which he kept using to measure — Gishuru didn’t quite understand what. She saw him dig into the ground, feel the soil.

“You could see the excitement,” she said. “He had something to do. Something to live for.”

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com