Waste Land, Promised Land
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In the weeks leading up to the flood, Constant Ngouala pulled weeds to prepare the beds for his fall seedlings. During those mid-August days, steeped in Houston’s humidity, he hadn’t known about the tropical wave forming off the western coast of Africa, hadn’t paid any attention as it gathered into a tropical storm and began dragging itself across the wide Atlantic. In the mornings, in the strip across the street, Tejano music blasted from the K-K Barber & Beauty Shop while cars pulled in and out of the N&M Washateria and the Shop-N-Carry. By afternoon, as the damp air burned away to something clearer and harder, so did the music—Latino rap, Luis Fonsi, Maluma. Late in the week, at the fifty-cent carwash, a group of African American men convened in the shade of one of the bays on folding chairs, laughing and calling out to each other. Smoke from a barbecue pit hauled by a black truck filled the air. Cars surged past in waves. Insects buzzed like static.
Constant’s kids were living with him for the summer, and sometimes he brought them here, to his farm that teems with the organic produce he grows on an easement beneath an electricity transmission tower at the intersection of Fondren and Willowbend in southwest Houston. The land once belonged to Braeswood Church across the street, but they had donated the narrow, unbuildable lot to Plant It Forward, a local nonprofit that trains refugees to become urban farmers. Plant It Forward divided the land into three one-acre plots and allocated these “Fondren Farm” plots to refugees like Constant—all Congolese—after mentoring them for nearly a year on how to grow in the soil and climate of Houston, and to market their produce to this city’s clientele. The goal of Plant It Forward is to offer refugees a path toward economic self-sufficiency through organic farms that have the potential to generate enough income to support a family of four.
On this particular Thursday afternoon in mid-August, Constant’s oldest daughter, Gerlanie, fifteen, is helping him pick edamame pods while Ezechiel, nine, and Abigaelle, four, are sitting in the shade of a small roofed farm stand, drinking Power Aid and playing on their father’s cell phone. Constant, tall and reedy, bends over and wrenches the plants out and lays them down in sheaves as Gerlanie, her fountain of long black braids tied low at her neck, plucks the pods and drops them into a plastic bin. “Papa, why are the edamame fuzzy?” she asks. “Ask God,” he replies with a wide smile, shaking the dirt from the roots of a stalk. “I’ll Google it when I get home,” Gerlanie says mildly.
The sharp edge of the sun’s heat has softened and a slight breeze cools the sweat on Constant’s brow. He and Gerlanie talk about the land he recently bought out in New Caney, a town northeast of Houston, near where the kids live with his ex-wife, the woman he’d married in Gabon when both were refugees there. Rent, even on the edge of the city, is expensive. His plan is to farm out in the country eventually. “My father was a big man in Congo,” Constant tells Gerlanie. “When he died, everyone took all his money, and I was left with nothing. But here,” he says, his arms stretched out across his plot of earth beneath the electrical lines that have no end, “here I will leave you everything.”
In June of 1997, Constant had been a university student in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo, a city on the north side of the Congo River and just across from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Citizens call these two separate countries, linked by the river that has shaped their histories, Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa for short.) Constant had relatives working in the administration of Pascal Lissouba, the first democratically elected president of Congo- Brazzaville, when the capital erupted into a civil war fought between militias of Lissouba and those of the former president, Denis Sassou Nguesso. Thousands of people died in the fighting—including friends and a cousin of Constant’s. Sassou Nguesso took power. Though Constant tried to return to the university, it was not safe for him, given his family’s alliances, and so he fled.
He crossed into Gabon in February 1999 and made his way to the city of Tchibanga. It was early enough in the civil war that the Gabonese had to be convinced that Constant and the twenty thousand other Congolese entering their cities legitimately needed refuge. Constant organized with other students and spoke out on radio and television about the killing, raping, and atrocities they had witnessed. Eventually, Gabon granted the Congolese refugee status. Though there were no camps, refugees could, theoretically, rent housing and legally work. But they were regularly exploited. Constant got a job as a mechanic, but he kept getting cheated of his wages. That’s why he started farming.
He knew a little about growing from his father, who cultivated fruit trees—mango, avocado, papaya, the heart-shaped, spiky-skinned corossol—and from some classes he took at an agricultural research center near his hometown of Dolisie. In Gabon, scrambling to earn enough money to get by, he noticed how few vegetables were in the markets. Spotting an opportunity, he thought to himself, “I’ll bring them some greens.”
He staked a claim on a scrap of wasteland just outside the city and started growing—eggplant, peppers, okra, amaranth, Malabar spinach, arugula, cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, onions, long beans. The more he grew, the more he sold to other refugees, and the more he sold, the more other refugees took notice. Slowly, with Constant’s encouragement, those in the displaced community began to farm too. They eventually created a collective to sell to the Gabonese. When visiting ministers would come to town, it was Constant’s produce they were eating. He even advised the city’s prison warden on setting up a garden. Because of his farm, he had credibility in Tchibanga. He made good money. He employed ten workers. He could marry, and he could raise his children. When refugees he knew ran into problems, he would reach out to his connections.
But despite all this, Constant always felt the vulnerability of his refugee status. He could not continue his university studies. He could never leave Tchibanga without fear of being arrested and deported back to Congo. That’s why, despite the thriving farm and the credibility and connections, Constant felt he had to leave when he was offered the chance by the United Nations Refugee Agency to be permanently resettled in Houston in 2009. “If Gabon is a country where we really had freedom,” he said, “I would not have come to the US.”
At the Fondren Farm on this August day, Constant and Gerlanie are nearing the end of the bed of edamame. As the sun sinks through draped power lines, he and his daughter lapse into silence. Constant thinks about all the friends he grew up with who were lost in the fighting in Congo. He thinks about those who remain in Africa, his brothers and his sisters. He misses the joy of family, the sharing of life’s issues. Gerlanie thinks about how solitary her father seems, how he says he doesn’t have friends here, only acquaintances. But Constant also thinks about how this farm has saved him. How it gave him a livelihood that was familiar when everything was strange. How, when even his wife had left him, he could still walk his acre of earth and touch the soil.
But soon now, as the tropical storm passes over the Yucatán Peninsula and gathers strength in the Gulf of Mexico, Constant will travel back to Congo to marry Roseline Lucie Peto. He’d dated Roseline two decades ago, before the war, but he had heard that she’d been murdered, along with her father and sister. He found out later that she and her mother had survived. Constant visited her for the first time last year, and when he told her he would come back to bring her to Houston, Roseline asked, knowing he was a refugee, “How are you going to make it? You don’t have anything.” But he had arugula and long beans and tomatoes and kale, depending on the season. He had eggplant and cucumbers and radishes and peppers. He had sugarcane and cassava and roselle, an African hibiscus. He had figs and he had bananas because he had a farm, because he was a Plant It Forward farmer. Which meant, he would tell Roseline and her mother with a warm smile full of the pleasure of a man who has cheated fate from stealing his happiness again, he had money. Soon, they would work his farm here, and later the land near New Caney, together.
The way that founder Teresa O’Donnell sees it, Plant It Forward is as much an organic product of Houston’s pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit as the fruits and vegetables that its farmers now grow. “We’ve got a bunch of land,” she points out. “We’ve got a bunch of people who know how to farm. And we have a huge demand for local produce.”
It hadn’t initially been so obvious, though. Working for her brother’s software company, Teresa had been looking for a way for employees to get involved in the community. What got her thinking first was an article in the Houston Chronicle about how this city resettles refugees—more than any other outside of San Diego. Teresa discovered, when she reached out to Catholic Charities, one of five resettlement agencies here, that many refugees arrive without much formal education or the ability to speak English and without marketable job skills. This means that refugees, who come with almost nothing, often end up doing menial labor and have little hope of breaking out of the poverty in which they arrive.
It was when Teresa learned about Urban Harvest, a local nonprofit that develops community gardens and farmers markets around Houston, that the dots finally connected in her mind. One of its directors had this theory: He told her that a one-acre market garden in this temperate climate where you can grow year-round might be able to provide a livable wage, which, with Houston’s fairly affordable cost of living, means about $21,000 annually for one person. He hadn’t tried to prove his theory, but Teresa was curious, so she made some phone calls. She asked Catholic Charities if any of their refugees were, by chance, farmers. All of them, was the reply.
Fourteen Congolese refugees participated in that first training class in 2012. Every Saturday for almost a year, Plant It Forward trained the refugees how to grow from seeds, how to use drip irrigation, how to control pests organically, how to display produce for the Whole Foods crowd. Toward the end of their training, the new farmers were allocated a small parcel, just under an acre each on the Fondren Farm, and on other unused tracts around the city. They were also given a stipend during the first few risky months, after they had quit their low-wage jobs but before they had harvested produce to bring to market.
Self-sufficiency in the form of a livable wage is Plant It Forward’s vision for its farmers, and its success in making this vision a reality distinguishes it from most other refugee farm and garden programs across the country, which focus on generating supplemental income and produce to feed refugee families. To its visionary end, Plant It Forward has—in addition to the training and the land—set up a warehouse with refrigerators and cleaning stations and storage for all the farmers to use, and it maintains a stockpile of tools and equipment. It also develops relationships with farmers markets and local chefs, which the Congolese, not speaking fluent English and not familiar with these networks, would struggle to do alone.
Above all, Plant It Forward’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is, almost literally, the farmers’ bread and butter. Customers in the CSA program subscribe to a weekly farm share from a Plant It Forward farmer and thereby serve as partners in the farm, come hell or high water. Out of these subscription fees, Plant It Forward pays its farmers a dividend each week. And each week in return, subscribers receive a box of whatever produce their farmer is growing. Because subscribers agree to share in the risk as well as to reap in the bounty, this system provides a measure of insurance for the farmers: regardless of the disaster, the farmers will always get paid.
Some of the participants in the Plant It Forward pilot program have dropped out over the years. But two alumni of the program have gone on to operate their own farm together, independent of Plant It Forward. Of the Master Farmers who remain, there is Constant, of course, but also others: Christine, who wears a red velvet headwrap, medical scrubs, and traditional block-print fabrics, shares the Fondren Farm with Constant, and gets help from her daughters and grandchildren at the Saturday market. Guy farms at Fondren, too, and cooks at the Four Seasons downtown. When he was a refugee in Gabon, he trained under a French chef, in whose restaurant he also worked as a dishwasher. He hopes to own his own farm-to-table restaurant one day. Roy spent ten years moored in Russia before being resettled by the UN here, and now farms on land at the University of St. Thomas. Sarment, along with his wife, Henriette, and Alimasi, along with his wife, Fatuma, work adjoining farms at the Westbury Community Garden, bordered by Highway 99 and the railroad that runs beside it. Alimasi is also a Pentecostal pastor.
These men and women, the dispossessed of the Congo, where five and a half million people have died during the civil wars and their aftermath, helped Teresa connect the dots: land, refugee farmers, demand for local produce. These farmers are proving that it is in fact possible (difficult, in this era of increasingly uncertain weather patterns triggered by climate change, but possible nevertheless) to earn a livable wage and sometimes more from a one-acre market garden on a patch of discarded earth in Greater Houston.
After the hurricane made landfall, when the rains came and then kept coming, the highways turned to rivers lined by the tops of trees. In the distance, the city’s buildings rose from the water as if in some dream. In between, everything that we had made here, every signpost that we had used to tell us where we were—all of it was under water. Fishing boats were launched from street corners whose stop signs were drowning and trolled the flooded roads to ferry people from their homes—two-story brick McMansions, low-slung ranch houses, faux-colonial apartments, the haphazard constructions of the unregulated and the undocumented. “I had a burden on my heart,” explained a sunburned fisherman from Kentucky to the television reporter about why he hooked his boat to his pickup and drove to Houston. “I never seen so much love in my life as I’ve seen here.”
City buses, even dump trucks, carried the rescued to the shelters. At the George R. Brown Convention Center, first 5,000 people came, then 7,000, then 10,000. As possessions washed away, neighbors gathered bags of their own discarded things to bring to the dispossessed. The bags became mounds, then mountains, to be sorted through by those who lined the blocks outside the shelters desperate to help, to do something, anything, to be part of the communal effort. Eighteen thousand people registered to volunteer with the Red Cross in the first three days of the flooding alone. The graffiti tag which everyone knew by heart—BE SOMEONE—spray-painted on the bridge spanning I-45, now felt like an injunction.
When the water drained away, the mucking out started and streets became clogged with piles of sheetrock and splintered cabinetry and insulation and mattresses, furniture and clothing and family pictures. It was like a barn raising in reverse. Because of the debris, neighborhoods were like “war zones,” people said. The displaced were like “refugees,” people said. Which technically wasn’t true at all. No one had been forced to flee because of persecution or violence, and to equate what was happening after Hurricane Harvey with what was happening overseas seemed to some to diminish the actual refugee crisis. But maybe this imprecision was less an act of appropriation than a gesture toward empathy: a recognition of what that uprooting at a moment’s notice might feel like, a sudden revelation of the fragility of all our lives. That’s also what people said: that the flood didn’t distinguish between rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Muslim, Republican and Democrat. No one asked anyone’s immigration status when they were pulling people from the water. Maybe those lines of division—lines laid bare in Charlottesville just two weeks before—had been washed away by the flood, or submerged like all the other things we had made. Would the waters redeem us, like a baptism? Would we come out new? Or would the lines be there when the waters receded, like wrack left on the shore of the Gulf after the tide?
For days, Liz Vallette, president of Plant It Forward since January 2017, couldn’t get to the farms to survey the damage. She’d been holed up at her place texting the farmers, whose apartments had all miraculously been spared. In her restlessness, Liz designed a t-shirt to raise money for Plant It Forward. “Root for Houston,” it said, a bunch of radishes punctuating the phrase. On social media, she asked anyone living near the farms to post pictures of the damage, so when the waters subsided and Liz finally walked the farms herself, she already knew it would be bad. But she took comfort in what had survived: amaranth, roselle, Malabar spinach, cassava and sugarcane—the resilient crops of Congo. That seemed like a sign.
Liz grew up in a suburb north of Houston and went to the US Military Academy at West Point, where she’d been recruited to play soccer. A couple of years after graduation, in 2004, she deployed to Iraq and was stationed at Camp Victory in Baghdad on the grounds of Al Faw Palace, a former complex of Saddam Hussein’s: muscular sandstone on the outside, tricked out all in gold within, the entire thing situated in the middle of a manmade lake through which huge carp glided in endless loops. She was in procurement, engaged primarily in acquiring high-level communications equipment. She tried to source supplies locally. But so much procurement was being contracted out to private American companies. And the cost was astounding. Some of the companies provided beds and lamps and blankets and air-conditioning and dining halls with dessert bars. To Liz, it was insane.
It was during her time in Iraq that Liz started asking questions: Why did this happen? Why did we do this? Was this the best way? In 2009, after having left the military, she returned to the Middle East to work for a Canadian nonprofit in Afghanistan advocating on behalf of local businesses. So much money was pouring into the country, but a lot of it was going to foreign companies. Liz wanted to use her skills in procurement to drive dollars and jobs directly to the Afghan people, and, indirectly, to give young men there an alternative to joining the insurgency. Her work, she thought, might provide a sustainable, nonmilitary solution to the mess war creates.
She loved Kabul, where she lived. She loved the Afghans with whom she worked, many of them—displaced by the Taliban, or before that by the war with Russia—were educated in refugee camps in Pakistan as children. But after a couple of years, Kabul became more tense. There were bombings and assassinations. Liz’s office would run emergency drills in case of an attack. The best option for escape seemed to be to run to the roof and jump to the next building.
Liz came home to Houston. And up until the 2016 election, she thought that she knew the country that she had served. She thought that her values were the values of America, mostly. But in his campaign, Donald Trump equated refugees from the Middle East with terrorists, and this bothered Liz. She had come to see that the US was not innocent. Her friends’ lives had been upended by the wars America was fighting; she felt her coworkers in Kabul, her translator in Iraq, had done more to serve America during that war than had many American citizens. So when the soon-to-be president talked about banning Middle East refugees, it felt personal to Liz. And when he was elected, Liz thought, Maybe this isn’t the country I thought it was.
But Houston didn’t feel like the America she didn’t know. As an antidote to election night, Liz watched again the Houston episode of the Anthony Bourdain show, Parts Unknown, which had aired just a week or so before. Filled with stories of immigrants and refugees and the descendants of slaves, and featuring all their delicious food, one segment focused on the Congolese farmers from Plant It Forward. Oh yeah, that group, thought Liz. Love those guys. A couple of weeks later, feeling the pull to do something more, she checked the nonprofit job boards to see who was hiring. Plant It Forward was looking for a president. Liz took the job just before Trump’s inauguration.
People can be afraid of what they don’t know. Liz tries to be sensitive to this when she talks about how Plant It Forward helps refugees assimilate into the Houston community, about how it opens a door at that dead-end corridor of low-wage jobs, offering a path forward into the American Dream. But Plant It Forward also reaches out to other parts of Houston, including those that are home to people who are potentially fearful of refugees. Liz says it puts a familiar face—the face of the farmer at the Saturday market—on the refugee crisis abroad. It’s harder to be fearful when refugees are your neighbors, when you eat the food they’ve grown.
In the aftermath of the flood, these interconnections between Plant It Forward and the community only deepened. For example, as soon as they could get to their farms, Christine and Sarment harvested one hundred pounds of okra between them that had somehow survived the endless rains. They hauled it to the warehouse, not knowing what to do with it, happy to donate it just so it wouldn’t go to waste without that week’s markets. So Liz posted on Twitter about the okra surplus, and it was quickly snapped up by folks churning out gumbo for first responders. Then a local goat farmer saw the thread and insisted on paying Christine and Sarment out of funds that her customers had donated to her but that she didn’t really need because her farm hadn’t flooded.
If human beings are defined at base by the fragility of our lives, if we’re rooted together, in the end, by nothing but our shared vulnerability, then maybe the only consolation for the human condition is the care we can offer each other. Ages ago, our idea of justice must have emerged out of this sense of our fundamental equality: we are all mortal, all at the mercy of forces we can’t predict or control. So when tragedy strikes, we need not ask for whom the bell tolls. But while recovery requires resilience, like okra and amaranth and roselle in the flood, it can be aided by humans recognizing in each other their own vulnerability and stretching out a hand to pull them through to the other side.
To get to the Plant It Forward warehouse from downtown, drive south on I-45, past strip malls from every decade of recent memory, past car dealers and signs for immigration attorneys. At Gulfgate Mall, turn west on I-610, with its cheap hotels and industrial storage facilities and a construction yard where demolition debris is recycled into more roads. Just past the Astrodome, exit Stella Link. Notice the panadería and pastelería on your right, the taqueria attached to the gas station, the tidy brick homes, the slouching apartment buildings. Turn onto Willowbend Boulevard. If you keep going straight, you’ll arrive at the Fondren Farm. But just before the train tracks, stop at the nondescript aluminum-sided warehouse. You are there.
It’s sometimes hard to imagine the natural topography of this city. The banks of nearby Brays Bayou, like so many other Houston bayous that carry runoff to the Gulf, were cemented over by the US Army Corps of Engineers years ago in what has turned out to be a failed plan to facilitate drainage. If you kept heading farther west, out toward Katy, you’d have a hard time finding the wetlands and bluestem prairies that once absorbed those rains and kept them from flooding the city. They’ve been cemented over too, with parking lots and strip malls and endless subdivisions. All of this omnivorous development has been abetted by a lack of regulation, or weak enforcement of whatever regulations do exist. But development has been Houston’s lure: Harris County, which encompasses Houston, has grown more than any other county in the country in recent years. This place has always seemed to contain space enough and jobs for all. Yet now, after Harvey—and after the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and the Memorial Day Flood of 2015—some fear this development may be the city’s undoing in an era of intensifying climate change.
Liz opened the first meeting at the warehouse after the flood by asking for reports from the farmers. “Rien est bon,” said Roy. Nothing is good. The other farmers sitting on folding metal chairs clucked, grim faced, and shook their bowed heads. Christine, in her red velvet headscarf, still had a little okra left. Guy and Sarment, too. Roy had roselle—that was it. Alimasi had some sweet potatoes and leeks. “Everything else has been completely destroyed,” he said. Constant was still in Congo. He’d been anxiously watching the reports on television, tracking Harvey once it entered the Gulf. His nephew got news to Constant that besides the sugarcane and maybe some cassava, all his crops were gone.
Clech, Christine’s daughter, stood with her fussing infant strapped to her back in a sling. Sarment’s wife, Henriette, sat on the couch next to Liz with a chubby-cheeked baby on her lap, a pacifier clipped to his shirt. Their toddler, in Batman sandals, wandered the room. “Okay, we will cancel CSA for now,” Liz decided after hearing the reports, but reminding the farmers that they would still get paid, even though they had no produce for their subscribers that week, or maybe for awhile. As she spoke, Henriette’s baby grasped Liz’s finger in his fist and pulled it to his mouth.
Since Liz had taken over, she’d been scouting around for some kind of insurance that would provide real coverage for the farmers. After a surprise January freeze that had killed off everything, and now these floodwaters that had washed their crops away, the farmers were growing anxious. The Plant It Forward vision of sustainable work at a living wage was possible but tenuous. These disasters, accelerated by a changing climate, reminded them of their vulnerability. Plant It Forward could cancel the CSA shares for a few weeks, and help the farmers replant by purchasing seeds and resupplying damaged irrigation lines. It could divide up the donations that were coming in—$500 for each of the farmers. And it could set up volunteer days to clear away debris. But the farmers’ losses far exceeded that help. Still, for now, this was the best Liz could do. “Ah, merci,” said Guy under his breath, almost to himself. Nodding beside him, Alimasi, the Pentecostal pastor, added, “C’est un bon esprit, eh?” It’s a good spirit.
After the flooding, and with his own limited English, Alimasi was now feeling helpless to speak up for those in his congregation who depended on him. Some had spent almost a week hemmed in by the waters, or had evacuated only to return to apartments with carpets and walls turning black with mold while managers demanded rent and did nothing. Others had lost jobs at businesses affected by the flooding. This suffering hurt Alimasi. Even the conference room in the Holiday Inn where his congregation worshipped had taken in water, so now on Sundays they crammed into his living room to sing and offer praise.
Alimasi figured he himself would be losing about $1,000 a month through December, which was $1,000 a month more than he could afford to lose. Perhaps because Alimasi and Fatuma have so many mouths to feed, including their children and the orphaned nieces and nephews they brought with them from Congo, or perhaps because they are older, they have not found the financial success with Plant It Forward that they originally imagined. They are making a living, but just barely. Farming has given them independence from the night shift work of cleaning windows and floors at the upscale mall, but they have lost the security of full-time employment with a company that provided benefits. Alimasi doesn’t mind hard work, but sometimes it seems like their future has been blocked. Sometimes they can’t see where they are going.
Still, looking back over his life, Alimasi realizes that in leaving Congo for the refugee camp in Uganda, where he built a church with refugees from all over Africa, and then in leaving Uganda for America, where he lives among Hispanics and South Asians, he has assembled a philosophy out of his displacement. He sees that he can live anywhere and with anyone. Being a refugee and working with Plant It Forward taught him this. A malady has spread through Congo, Alimasi thinks, carried in by Rwandans, by Burundians, fleeing ethnic slaughter. People of different tribes used to live together peacefully in his home country. But these ethnic divisions have increasingly become sources of trouble. Alimasi longs to be able to return to his people and say: You are fighting for nothing, man. You are dying for nothing. The stranger could bring some things that you didn’t have before.
Considering this longing of Alimasi’s, the decision by the current presidential administration to cap refugee admissions into the US this year at 45,000—down from the 110,000-person goal that President Obama had set before he left office, and lower than that of any other White House administration since 1980, when legislation first gave the president authority to define the cap—is wrongheaded. America is a kind of ecosystem nourished by the displaced to whom it offers refuge. To welcome refugees here is also to carry seeds of tolerance, as if on the wind, back to relatives and friends in home countries razed by violence. These ideas, planted in their native soil, could take root and flourish. Refugee resettlement is a sustainable foreign policy which, in the end, could protect us all.
“Don’t feel sad and don’t feel alone,” Liz was telling the farmers as the meeting at the warehouse came to a close. She wanted them to get her lists of the seeds they would need to replant in the next week. “Be happy,” she said as the farmers stood to leave. “The sun is shining. The farms are drying.” Nods all around. “Oh! And the mosquitoes are coming,” Liz added, handing out cans of insect repellant.
A month after Harvey, Plant It Forward began a new training class with over twenty potential refugee farmers at the Demonstration Farm laid out between Alimasi’s land and Sarment’s near the railroad and the highway. All summer, Liz had been recruiting through the resettlement agencies and on refugee Facebook groups. A military friend of Liz’s, originally from Sudan, spread the word among the Sudanese community. Fatuma even referred several participants, whom Liz described as “adorably bossy Congolese women.” Though the deadline to apply had been in August, word of the program’s opportunities was spreading and new applicants kept turning up, hoping to be allowed in. The class now has refugees from at least six countries: Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria, Liberia, Sudan, and Cameroon.
Liz, and Daniella Lewis, the operations manager for Plant It Forward, have been reimagining the nonprofit’s possibilities and are scrambling to keep up with their vision. The new training class means they’ll need more land for farms, and more markets for the produce. They’re looking into partnering with an institution—a school, perhaps, or a hospital. They want to get authorized to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits—otherwise known as food stamps. They’d also like to offer different tracks for the farmers that they train: some could become, as before, independent contractors running their own urban farms; but others could work on a Plant It Forward farm, growing for the wholesale program.
On one Saturday morning in late October, the first cold day of the season, the refugee trainees and some of their spouses and children were gathered around Dr. Joe Novak, the Plant It Forward agriculture consultant and a former professor of garden science. Speaking slowly and loudly, his white hair lifting in the breeze, Novak was demonstrating how to fertilize the rows that they had been preparing for the last couple of weeks, each row labeled with a participant’s name. After every sentence, Novak would pause to allow the two translators, distributed among the trainees, to translate into French and Swahili.
The crisp air sharpened and clarified everything. Though traffic owed past on the nearby highway, here in the planted fields, the city seemed far away. It had become a world again of fundamentals: green crops, blue sky, black earth. The seeds that the trainees had planted in trays were pressing up out of the soil—lettuce, carrots, rutabaga, sugar snap peas. The fringed leaves of Alimasi’s banana tree shimmied in the wind. After Novak demonstrated the proper use of a motorized tiller, one of the women gave it a try. When it got away from her and careened down the row as she barely held on, the adorably bossy Congolese women wearing traditional kangas and flip-flops and head wraps and jackets leaned into one another and bent their bodies over in joyous laughter.
The current Plant It Forward farmers weren’t here that day. Most of them—Constant, Christine, Roy, Sarment—were at their Saturday markets. Alimasi was looking into a church that had offered space for his Congolese parishioners to worship. But Fatuma was here, taking the training class herself, along with a nephew who came with them from Congo. If they successfully complete the training, they could have their own farms one day, which might put the family on stronger financial ground.
Since the day he returned from his wedding in Brazzaville to find his farm laid waste, Constant has been preparing beds and planting furiously. He started a nursery of seedlings in one plot, which he transplants as they grow. He sowed cooler-weather radishes well before the other farmers and he’s already harvesting them for his CSA shares. The kale is flourishing, as is the lettuce and kohlrabi. The strain and fear in his eyes are lifting. In a year, the roads and the water lines and the electricity will be installed on his new land. By then, Roseline will be here. Constant is patient. Together they will prepare the soil. He’s thinking of planting an orchard. Eventually, he hopes to own three or four farms on the outskirts of the city. He believes he has to work hard for his new country, to give it a productive return on its investment in him. Soon he will start teaching the Saturday training classes himself and mentor the new refugee farmers. “I know tomorrow will be good,” he says.
After the Saturday market, Constant returns to his farm at the margins and thinks about how soothing it is here in a place otherwise surrounded by so much concrete. Walking the path of green grass bisecting the framed plots, he surveys the crops that have sprung from the earth of a city whose fate does not seem quite as certain. A flock of starlings, startled from out of the sugarcane as Constant ambles by, lifts into the sky like a handful of tossed seeds, then scatters and settles along the electrical lines that run above him to the borderless horizon.
This article was made possible through the support of Kalliopeia Foundation.