In Northeast Kansas City, Refugees Put Down New Roots

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How an innovative training garden outside of the oldest public housing project in Kansas is changing the way an entire community eats

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In Kansas City, Kansas, a pioneering agricultural program called the Training Farm at Juniper Gardens is transforming newly resettled refugees into self-sufficient organic farmers. But my cab driver, Jeffery Meyers, wouldn't take me there. He said it didn't exist.

In order to understand Meyers' incredulity, you'll have to hear a tale of two cities. Kansas City, Kansas, lies across the river from its better-known Missouri counterpart, and it's historically faced starker economic challenges. Today, unemployment runs high -- 11.3 percent in January 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Census data from 2010 showed that, in the city's School District 500, 30 percent of children were living in poverty. The house at 852 Freeman Avenue, birthplace of jazz great Charlie Parker, was torn down long ago; modern pilgrims to that address will only find another vacant lot.

For fans of organic farming, the Juniper Gardens Training Farm is one of Kansas City's best-kept secrets.

Locals typically refer to Kansas City, Kansas, in acronymic shorthand -- KCK -- and it's statistically included in the two-million-person metro area that surrounds Missouri's most populous city. But on the Missouri side, residents disagree about whether KCK is really part of their hometown. Some call it Northeast Kansas City, suggesting kinship across state boundaries. Still, I heard others, like Meyers, refer to KCK standoffishly -- "the ghetto," or simply, "up there." To Meyers, the thought of organic vegetables blooming across the river was inconceivable. "Buddy," he told me, "the only garden you're going to find over there is a box in a window."

Five years ago, he would have been right. Juniper Gardens is the oldest public housing project in Kansas, and its name has long been a misnomer. Until recently, nothing much grew in the open land between the development and the Missouri River -- just eight acres of grass strewn with rubble from torn-down buildings.

When I pulled up to the complex in Meyers' cab, his incredulity didn't wane. There was no room for farmland. It's an urban block, long, narrow, and lined with Section 8 apartments. Freight trains hoot nearby, and chartered jets fly overhead toward the Downtown Airport, which is less than a mile east on the opposite riverbank. For a moment, I thought I'd taken down the address wrong. But then, behind the row of squat, beige-and-brown homes, I saw telltale cornstalk fronds waving in the distance.

For fans of organic farming, the Juniper Gardens Training Farm is one of Kansas City's best-kept secrets. It's also a sight to behold. Since 2008, refugee farmers have tended lush plots of vegetables here, using gestures and tentative English to bridge the barriers of their far-flung languages. In the fields, ankle-length Somali sarongs mix with triangular bamboo hats. When I visited, in August, North American staples -- tomatoes and kale and beets -- grew alongside less familiar fare like chin baung (a tangy Burmese sorrel) and Thai eggplants (bright green, no larger than summer grapes). I'd left behind the world of Royals games and big band jazz and Arthur Bryant's Barbeque -- even though the Kansas City skyline loomed, impossibly close, on the horizon.

Rachel Pollock directs New Roots for Refugees, the farm and agricultural training program at Juniper Gardens. It's one of many initiatives run by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, an organization that provides a wide range of services for the region's needy. Since 1956, its staff has helped new refugees find transportation, health care, education, and employment. But for many years a less obvious need went overlooked.

"We resettle 250 to 300 refugees a year," Pollock told me during an interview at the Training Farm. "Most have agricultural experience. They're used to being outside. They miss having daily life revolve around working the land." For many, abandoning the rhythms and rigors of farm-based life is another challenging aspect of their difficult adjustment. "By moving into an apartment complex," Pollock said, "they feel like they've lost touch with everything they used to be."

The Training Farm allows refugees to cultivate a taste of home in an unsettling new environment. Every fall, New Roots chooses 16 refugees based on expressed interest, skill level, and enthusiasm. Beginning in November, the chosen participants take a series of agricultural workshops through Cultivate Kansas City, a non-profit that provides tools and training for aspiring urban farmers. "We teach them everything from pest control to horticulture to beginning marketing," Cathy Bylinowski, who manages Cultivate Kansas City, told me. By springtime, each farmer knows what to plant, how to grow, and ways to make yields pay. Finally, New Roots finds each farmer several CSA members, matching culinary tastes with crop choices.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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