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Sunday, 17 August 2014 22:00

Transition Training: Entrepreneurship program helps refugees tap into agricultural knowledge

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A new Bethany Christian Services program, Hope Farms, helps refugees access employment opportunities by fostering entrepreneurship related to agribusiness. A new Bethany Christian Services program, Hope Farms, helps refugees access employment opportunities by fostering entrepreneurship related to agribusiness. COURTESY PHOTO

The struggle for many refugees doesn’t end once they are resettled in a new country.

Resettlement comes with a host of new challenges, particularly for refugee families living in the United States. A different language, a foreign culture and the formidable task of finding a job to support their families are just some of the difficulties involved in the process.

But a new program from a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit wants to encourage entrepreneurship as one potential employment solution.

To help ease the process of finding a job, Bethany Christian Services recently debuted Hope Farms, a refugee run and operated farming incubator. The goal is to take the agriculture skills many refugees already possess and give them an opportunity to bring home supplemental income that will allow them to branch out into their own agricultural businesses within three years.

“A lot of people think, ‘[The refugees] came to America, now everything’s fine,’” said Aaron Russo, the project coordinator of Hope Farms. “They’re safer, there’s physical safety and material security, but there’s a set of things going on around cultural transitions and language. It’s a huge adjustment. When you can give them the opportunity to reengage in activities that remind them of home, that’s a huge boost in the transition.”

Although the project’s farmland was first plowed this past Memorial Day, the concept has been in the works over the past two years. Bethany Christian Services currently offers two programs for refugees: refugee resettlement and refugee employment. Russo is part of the refugee employment program and wanted to look for ways not only to provide employment opportunities but also to give refugees an opportunity to break off and start their own businesses.

“It became very obvious what the barriers were for the community, which was English, little or no transportation, little or no experience ... but tons of agricultural background,” Russo said. “It started with me asking questions about what it would look like if we had something really local that they could do. I found out about some programs all over the country called incubator farming … and that’s the model we started following.”

From there, Russo started looking for partnerships within the community. He contacted the nonprofit Holland Home in Kentwood about some land the organization owned and soon thereafter secured a lease for five acres that Bethany Christian Services turned into Hope Farms.

“They had land that was just sitting there and we had a farm that we wanted to start,” Russo said. “It was very close to where all the refugees live, and it fit both the missions of the organizations very well.”

Holland Home jumped at the opportunity to work with Hope Farms because the partnership benefits both organizations, said Holland Home COO Mina Breuker.

“Some of our residents who are really into farming and gardening like to take a walk and enjoy the farms,” Breuker said. “It also provides an opportunity for our residents, if any of them want to garden alongside the farmers.”

In September, the two organizations will come together for a meet and greet for the farmers and the residents. As the program grows, Breuker hopes to work with Hope Farms to supply a small farmers market for Holland Home’s residents.

“We hope to get to the point that we could use some of the vegetables in our dining service,” Breuker added. “But we have to be careful that they meet dining standards.”

One way to think of Hope Farms’ model is as a bike with training wheels. The refugees are driving the bike, but Bethany Christian Services is providing support until the farmers are able to ride off on their own. There is a $150 program fee for the farmers and from there, Bethany provides land, irrigation, some tools and some seeds. If the farmers want additional equipment or seeds, they go out and buy it themselves. Currently, there are four farmers: three from Burma and one from Bhutan.

“It’s really their farm,” Russo said. “The plots are theirs, and they farm the plots. We assist them in accessing markets, but we are not doing the farming.”

Another one of Hope Farms’ partners is the David D. Hunting YMCA farmers market in Grand Rapids. The market is smaller and offers lower stall fees, which makes it compatible with the farmers at Hope Farms as the program is starting out. The YMCA also uses Hope Farms’ produce for its Veggie Van, which goes into low-income neighborhoods to provide healthy food options.

“It’s so effortless to provide them with a space to sell at the farmers market,” said Sara Vander Zanden, community collaborations director at the YMCA. “It’s a benefit for us because we have more produce available for our community. It’s a win for them because they have a really low stakes, low-risk place to sell.”

Being able to go to a market will give the farmers firsthand experience with customer service and business practices, which Russo said are their biggest challenges. The end goal is to teach the refugees Western entrepreneurial business techniques so they can branch out on their own within the three-year time line.

“There are people who don’t do record keeping at all and it can be really challenging,” he said. “The concepts are difficult, the language and vocabulary are difficult, but the goal is to get them to the point where they recognize that process and trying to ease them into that.”

Read 33009 times Last modified on Saturday, 16 August 2014 23:12

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