EAST AURORA, N.Y. (WIVB) – Western New York is home to refugees from all over the world who left their home countries to find better lives here. For many, that means adapting to a whole new way of life.
A new Community Garden project in East Aurora is helping hundreds of Somali Bantu refugees reconnect with the agricultural roots of their native country to feed their families.
“This is the first opportunity we get and we have to use it, because if you look at our background, we were farmers,” said Ali Macharmo, Executive Director for the Somali Bantu Community Organization of Buffalo.
Western New York is home to about 250 Somali Bantu families, many of whom spent years or even decades in refugee camps in Kenya before coming to the United States. During that time in the camps, much of their Somalian farming traditions were lost.
Now, dozens of Somali Bantu families are learning new farming techniques and reviving traditional practices as they tend to the 6.5 acres of the Somali Bantu Community Garden in East Aurora. “For my dream, in future, I know this is going to be helping the whole community,” said Mahamud Mberwa, a board member for the Somali Bantu Community Organization of Buffalo (SBCOB), who connected with organizers of a social activism group called the East Aurora Huddle to get help starting the garden.
It only came together about a month ago, when the owners of Providence Farm on Jewett Holmwood Road agreed to donate part of a horse turnout pasture for the new garden.
“It’s a great joy,” said farm owner Dr. Christopher Kerr, noting especially how much he’s enjoyed watching the young children get their first experiences in a rural setting. Many had never been outside the city of Buffalo before coming out to help in the garden, and many were initially apprehensive about meeting the farm animals. As our News 4 crew saw during a visit to the farm Wednesday morning, the children now love being around the horses and pigs.
“It’s privilege to live on this land and to see it shared,” Dr. Kerr added.
The Kerrs ended up sharing even more of their land for this project after a huge donation of plants from Zittel’s Country Market instantly expanded the scope. “It’s wonderful when people can grow their own food. It’s wonderful when they can figure out a way to help each other,” explained Terry Zittel, adding that her family also works with the group Journey’s End to help employ refugees on their farm in Eden.
Within weeks of the garden starting, another East Aurora farmer donated another plot of land, expanding the project yet again.
That’s left organizers scrambling to get the supplies needed to tend all the land now being used for the Somali Bantu Community Garden. “It’s a good problem to have,” said Kristin Heltman-Weiss, co-founder of the East Aurora Huddle group.
“The initial goal on the GoFundMe page was $1,000 and we thought that would do it, but as the project grew, we needed irrigation, we needed hoses, we needed a pump for the pond,” added East Aurora Huddle co-founder Gwen Beiter Warren.
The new fundraising goal is $4,500, which would help buy everything from seeds to fertilizer to fencing to help the group farm on the expanded plot.
The goal right now is to grow enough food in the Community Garden to feed hundreds of local Somali Bantu families. Eventually, they’d like to grow enough to share with others, and maybe even sell, to be able to make a living.
Heltman-Weiss says they’re growing far more than just food in this garden. “We are growing relationships, and it’s not just with a couple people, it’s with entire families,” she explained
The Somali Bantu families work side by side with local volunteers of all ages, each learning from each other as they tend the garden. “Where we come from it’s a completely different world than here,” said the chair of the SBCOB board of directors, Hamadi Ali, adding that the first Somali Bantu families to arrive in Western New York in the early 2000s had to learn how to use a microwave and flush a toilet for the first time, among many tasks most people who grew up in America take for granted.
Conversely, the Somali Bantu community is now teaching those who grew up around here about their own culture and traditions, including different crops grown in Somalia for traditional Somalian dishes.
“Gwen and I learned what Amaranth is. We had no idea what this is,” Heltman-Weiss told News 4. “It is a plant that is both a grain and you can grow it for its greens. The Somali Bantu like to grow it for it its greens.”
“They make a delicious dish – I do not know the name of it – but basically it’s a ground meat, tomatoes and the amaranth,” she explained.
Amaranth is now one of many varieties of plants growing in the Somali Bantu Community Garden, and organizers hope to continue expanding in the future.
If you’d like to help, you can learn more about the Somali Bantu Community Garden and make a donation on the project’s GoFundMe webpage.