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VOL. 126 | NO. 103 | Thursday, May 26, 2011

A New Home

Urban Farms helps refugees acclimate to new life

By Aisling Maki

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On a humid late May afternoon that signaled the imminent arrival of a sweltering Memphis summer, Burundi native Sedekia Imanairakiza seemed to be in his element, skillfully nurturing the soil and sowing the seeds that will yield fruitful summer crops at Urban Farms, a community garden in the heart of the city.

Sedekia Imanairakiza, a refugee from Burundi, weeds around basil in a greenhouse at Urban Farms in Memphis.  
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Imanairakiza, 45, is one of several African refugees enlisted to help farm the fields at 198 Wills St., inconspicuously situated at a dead-end residential road, where young children play and community workers come and go.

The sustainable project operates under the umbrella of the Binghampton Development Corp. – the entity that has spearheaded the revitalization of one of the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods.

The majority of Memphis’ newly arrived refugees live in Binghampton, and Urban Farms manager Jim Townsend said he hopes the farm can serve as an economic vehicle to provide for the families of any neighborhood residents, including refugees, with an agricultural skill set that would enable them to produce and sell crops at the nearby Urban Farms Market.

Urban Farms is also looking into the possibility of acquiring funds to train refugees on the farm and enable them to find jobs in cultivation and landscaping, whether through private companies, nonprofits or local government entities.

“This farm is for the community, and there are a lot of refugees in this community, so that’s kind of just a natural step,” said Townsend, who previously worked as consultant on a strategic project for Catholic Charities of West Tennessee, which, through its relationship with the U.S. State Department, serves as the first point of contact for all refugees who arrive in the Mid-South seeking to make a fresh start in the land of opportunity.

“Sedekia is a real farmer; he’s helping me a lot with his knowledge,” Townsend said. “I can help him with American knowledge and equipment and technology, but he has access to a whole different resource in his experience as a farmer in Africa.”

Imanairakiza’s story begins in a small, landlocked, east-central African country, noted as one of the world’s poorest. And like so many of his fellow countrymen, Imanairakiza was forced to flee the bloodshed of civil war in Burundi only to spend more than two decades enduring the hardships of life in the refugee camps of neighboring Tanzania.

His long, formidable journey on the road to providing a stable life for his wife and eight daughters eventually carried Imanairakiza to Memphis, where he arrived in the summer of 2007.

Catholic Charities played an integral role in helping the Imanairakiza family acclimate to their new cultural landscape.

Community volunteer Keri Davis works in a greenhouse at Urban Farms with neighborhood resident Kenneth Hill, 6.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The organization, which has helped settle more than 7,000 refugees in the Mid-South since the 1970s, provides refugees with social adjustment services, ESL classes and employment services, and also assists them in finding housing and health care providers such as Christ Community Health Services.

“Our motto is helping the stranger, and that’s what makes America great,” said Vinodini Javaram, director of Refugee Service for Catholic Charities of West Tennessee. “When you see the Statue of Liberty, it’s a symbol of kindness. It is this compassion that makes America unique and strong, and it’s a tradition we have to continue.”

Catholic Charities’ goal is to move refugees toward self-sufficiency in 180 days. Imanairakiza not only began working; at the suggestion of his case worker, a Bosnian refugee, Imanairakiza started his own cleaning business.

He spends his days farming and his evenings cleaning to provide for his family of 10, which now includes two boys born in Memphis.

Imanairakiza’s eldest daughter recently received an academic scholarship to the University of Memphis.

The busy, close-knit family of 12 spends quality time together by performing as a musical group called the Burundi Family Singers.

It was music that kept their spirits strong during their years in the refugee camps.

“Once the family fled the mountains of Burundi, they had to go through hostile territory in Rwanda,” said Javaram. “And during all that time, and through all those years of hardship, the only relaxation Sedekiah and the family had was their music. They would sing and sing in the refugee camps.”

The Burundi Family Singers have performed at churches, South Main Friday Art Trolley Tours and at the International Refugee Day celebration in Memphis, and sometime in June, they’ll perform at the Urban Farms Market.

“This is a family that, when you hear them sing you will cry; they will remind you of the ‘Sound of Music’ but from Africa,” Javaram said.

Imanairakiza said he’s incredibly thankful for all the help he’s received from Catholic Charities, Christ Community Health Services and the Memphis community at large.

“I love Memphis,” he said. “I have found many, many friends here.”

The Daily News Publishing Co. is a supporter of Urban Farms.

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