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An urban farm helps immigrants from East Africa settle in Seattle

By Kibkabe Araya
Seattle Times
Among the rows of green, leafy vegetables, Ikram Said waters a row of seedlings, eager to see them mature into Italian parsley and Georgia collards.

On a 10-acre swath in South Seattle, Said, 16, and other immigrants from East Africa are adjusting to their new home by helping to run a farm.

Daily chores at the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands Preserve, and the skills and decision-making required to keep the enterprise going, are a new part of the curriculum for a program aimed at teaching professional and leadership skills to recent arrivals.

During the summer, the teenagers spent Fridays at the farm, and while tending to the fruits and vegetables they often worked alongside older East African immigrants volunteering there in hopes of becoming farmers.

Born in Ethiopia, Said and her family lived in Kenya before coming to Seattle in January. School in Kenya was unaffordable, but here she's a high-school student and now, a budding farmer.

"We came here to lead a better life here, you know. It's good here. It's better than Kenya," she said. "I'm having fun because I'm learning how to plant. I feel happy. I never done this job before. I'm happy."

A low-flying airplane loudly buzzed above the garden on a recent morning. "I hate that sound," said Michael Neguse, a community advocate instrumental in bringing the Refugee Women's Alliance youth program to the farm. "It reminds me of home," he said of the noise of war.

Neguse, an Eritrean refugee who came to Seattle in 1984 from Sudan, said many immigrants have experienced refugee camps and civil wars. As they adjust to life here, the farm offers a respite, a place to learn practical skills and get access to healthful food.

"Coming here from other countries, no one is aiding them to eat healthy foods, letting them know they can grow their own food. We use it as prevention from different kinds of disease. Being in the garden makes them active and helps the healing, beautifies their neighborhoods."

After harvesting the crops, they prepare meals with food from the farm and bring it home to share with their families.

In the garden, languages such as Somali, Oromo, Amharic and Arabic swirl around, but farm manager Katie Pencke, of Seattle Tilth, an organization that supports "local food systems," said the teenagers' English ripens as they work together.

"What an amazing potential to give people a break from adjusting to the country," she said.

An incoming sophomore at Garfield High School, Maryan Mohamed, 15, helped her family sell produce from their farm on a Kenyan refugee camp instead of attending school, before coming to the United States in 2007.

"We used to have a garden. We used to make plants and grow tomatoes and onions and stuff," she said.

Lunch at the farm showcases the harvest: zucchini bread, collards, and bean and vegetable soup along with homeland favorites like potato stew spiced with a seasoning known as berbere and a flatbread called injera.

To avoid the temptation of food during her fast for Ramadan last month, Nasra Kassim, 17, cocooned herself into her red silk scarf.

Born in a refugee camp in Kenya, she never lived in her family's native Somalia. She came to the United States in 2005.

"We do lots of farming there (in Kenya)," she said. "Here, you just go to the grocery store and get everything. But here (at the farm) you work and know where the food comes from."

In East Africa, there is animosity between ethnic groups, Neguse said, but once in the United States, they come together and support each other. The garden also regularly has volunteers from Cambodia and Laos, two countries with a history of genocide and conflict.

"The garden helps them," he said. "When they're in the garden, they feel alive. They talk to other people and learn new things and get fresh veggies."

Kibkabe Araya: 206-464-2266 or

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