New Roots take hold

Mediatrice Niyonkuru fled her homeland with her parents in the ’90s to escape a civil war. She is enrolled in Catholic Charities’ New Roots for Refugees, which is a program to help people who came to the United States as refugees learn how to farm in Kansas. She sells the fruits of her labor at a local farmers’ market.

by Ellie Melero
@eleanor_melero

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Weeding a garden under a hot Kansas sun in July is not what most people would consider fun.

But Mediatrice Niyonkuru is happy to do it.

Mediatrice is a farmer, or at least she’s learning how to become one. She is one of 16 people enrolled in Catholic Charities’ New Roots for Refugees program, which is a program designed to help people who came to the United States as refugees learn how to farm in Kansas.

From across the ocean

Mediatrice is from Burundi. She fled her homeland with her parents in the ’90s to escape a civil war. She then spent 20 hard years in a refugee camp in Tanzania before coming to the United States in 2015.

“The way we were taken care of because we were refugees wasn’t good,” Mediatrice said of her experience in the camp. “Sometimes, we didn’t have food to eat. There wasn’t much help. So if you were sick, you were left on your own.”

When Mediatrice came to the United States, she was excited and a little overwhelmed. She didn’t speak English well, and the culture in Kansas is very different than what she was used to.

But she was thrilled to have a chance to build a better life for herself and her daughter.

Mediatrice said she was amazed at how many job opportunities there are in Kansas, and she took a job packaging soap in Kansas City, where she worked for about four years. During that time, she started to learn more about her new country, and she had her second daughter.

Mediatrice said she loves her life in Kansas, but sometimes she misses her home country, especially the people from her village. She also missed some of the food, and she noticed she was not the only person who struggled to find some of the foods she ate in Burundi.

“A lot of my friends from Burundi, they needed a lot of the muchichas and the pumpkin leaves, which are vegetables that we ate back home,” Mediatrice said. “I was, like, ‘I want to do that. I want to farm.’”

Mediatrice had farmed in Burundi, and she had even farmed in the refugee camp. But farming in Kansas is different than farming in other countries. So Mediatrice went to New Roots.

Farming in Kansas

New Roots for Refugees is a four-year program that Catholic Charities sponsors in partnership with Cultivate Kansas City, a local nonprofit working to grow food, farms and community in support of a sustainable and healthy local food system.

The program teaches refugees who farmed in their home countries how to farm in Kansas. This year, the program is teaching people from the Congo, Burundi, Nepal and different parts of Burma.

Each farmer gets a quarter of an acre lot to farm during their four years. In the winter and spring, the farmers take classes to improve their English and to learn more about marketing, budgeting and anything else important to running a small farm.

“We really have to teach them about the climate, what grows well here, how to manage the soil, things like that,” said Semra Fetahovic, the program manager from Cultivate Kansas City. 

“Here, there’s no flood farming. There’s no wet or dry season,” Fetahovic said. “The summer season is different than their summer season.

“We don’t have animals on the farm, so we have to teach them about how we source nutrients for the farm. There are different pests here and diseases. There’s just a lot of stuff they have to learn.”

The program is designed so that first-year participants receive heavy support in terms of paying for things like seeds and water and taking their produce to market. By the fourth year, the farmers are expected to be mostly independent.

This is Mediatrice’s first year with New Roots, and she said she has enjoyed her experience thus far. 

“I like that there are people who are watching over what I’m farming,” said Mediatrice. “There are people following up. They are helping take us to market and selling and things like that.”

Mediatrice is starting to learn how different farming in Kansas is from farming in Burundi. One of the biggest differences she has noticed is how farmers here use water. 

She said in Burundi she had to walk to the river to get water and bring it back to her crops; she is happy she doesn’t have to do that anymore!

Another part of farm life in Kansas that is different for her is the farmers’ markets. 

New Roots helps the farmers sell their produce at normal farmers’ markets around the Kansas City area. They also sell at mini-markets at area churches and through its Community Supported Agriculture program, which allows people to pay a lump sum at the beginning of the summer to receive produce from farmers throughout the season.

Mediatrice said she brings a little bit of everything she grows when she goes to market, but she is still learning what produce Americans want to buy. She said she is also learning the American attitude toward food is different from the one she is used to.

“When I’m at the market, people will come and buy something,” Mediatrice said. “And then they’ll ask me, ‘How do you cook it?’

“So I’m thinking to myself, ‘Do they come to the market and buy things that they don’t know?’”

Always learning

Mediatrice said she has learned a lot from New Roots, but she is aware there is still a lot more to learn. 

One of the things she hopes to discover more about is what types of foods people want to buy, and said she would like more feedback from her customers.

“I would like for people to tell me what they want us to farm, what they want to see being grown,” said Mediatrice.

Meredith Walrafen, the program manager from Catholic Charities, said Mediatrice’s eagerness to learn more and to always solicit more feedback is part of what makes her a great farmer.

“I think that she’s really engaged with the learning pieces of the program,” said Walrafen. “She’s kind of always looking for feedback and more information about what she can do differently — what her customers want, how she can improve her skills.”

Mediatrice hasn’t been in the program a full year yet, but she’s already making great progress. She has come a long way since her family left Burundi, and she hopes to go even further with the help of New Roots.

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