Seed to Plate: Refugee women harvest new beginnings

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

Since I began this series in March, two celebrated gardens have made headlines, suggesting that America may be at a tipping point when it comes to reconnecting with real food.

On March 20, First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of students from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School broke ground on an organic garden on the White House lawn. The message to America? That fresh, whole fruits and vegetables should be a priority, and, with some of the food going to Miriam’s Kitchen which serves Washington’s homeless, that everyone deserves to eat good food.

Meanwhile, right in our own back yard, gardeners and volunteers at Powell Gardens diligently worked to bring artist’s renderings of the Heartland Harvest Garden to life.

On May 27, I felt privileged to get an early tour. Spanning 12 acres, the $9.2 million installation is the country’s largest edible landscape. It is beautiful and inspiring, and it opens to the public this coming Sunday, June 14.

Yes, we are catching on.

But in 2004, fifteen refugee women from countries that in many ways are far behind us, were way ahead of us.

They came from cultures that have farmed for centuries, from Somalia, Burundi and Liberia to the same spot of earth in Kansas City, Kansas. They came because their home countries were intolerant, even hostile, toward people of their race, religion or tribe. They risked their lives to leave, they might have died if they had stayed.

They had little.

They knew little about this country. Our language, currency and customs were completely new. For some, running water or electricity in a home were miracles they had never witnessed. And because the women spoke different languages, they weren’t able even to share their ordeals with each other.

But once their husbands had jobs and their children were enrolled in school, once their social security cards and other official paperwork was in place (they are permanent residents of the US and can apply for citizenship if they choose), they grew a garden.

And as the women knelt together in the soil, worked it with their hands, some with children on their backs, some wrapped in the cloth of their own cultures, they knew exactly what they were doing.

Sure, farming is not the same in America as it is in Laos, Burma or Nepal, but the posture, the process, the painstaking care it takes to grow food, was familiar enough.

And while they planted collard greens on a tiny plot, another seed was taking root.

The garden was the start of New Roots for Refugees, an agriculture training program created by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture to help women build on their farming experience to regain their identity and create a livelihood here in the United States.

The farmers receive full support in their first year in the program — a quarter-acre plot, tools, seeds, water, market fees, transportation and more. Each year, they absorb more responsibility for their own businesses with the hope that eventually they will be able to operate on their own.

The women also get the basics they need to navigate the day to day workings of their new country and their new occupation by attending workshops where they can practice speaking English and using US currency, where they can learn about business and farming.

This year’s farmers are from the Republic of Burundi, the Union of Myanmar (Karen and Chin Burmese), Somalia and Sudan. Along with the income and education, farming gives these women a sense of purpose and a reason to get out into their new communities. Here are some ways you can support the refugees’ businesses and help them feel at home in Kansas City.

Buy their vegetables:
Starting in July, the women will sell at these markets:
Farmers Community Market at Brookside (63rd and Wornall), Saturdays, 8 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Downtown Overland Park Farmers Market (on Marty between 79th and 80th Streets),  Wednesdays, 7:30 a.m. – Sellout (usually around 1-2 p.m.)

Kansas City Kansas Green Market at Juniper Gardens (in the parking lot of Third Street Church of God, at the corner of North 3rd Street and Richmond Avenue), Mondays, 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Join the CSA:
Promise to buy a bag of locally grown vegetables every week through the summer, and you’ll provide some consistent income for the growers. Three slots are still open for pick up at Brookside Market and the cost is $15 per week. Contact Rachel Bonar 913-621-1504 or

Spend some time on the farm
You can volunteer to weed, water or harvest, or you can help out with many ongoing projects at the farm, such as sorting and labeling seeds, painting, spreading mulch.

Contribute supplies
Right now the farmers need more harvest tubs. They currently use 10 gallon Rubbermaid Roughneck tubs from Target, and want more of the same for stackability. (Alternately, Target gift cards allow the growers to get the exact bins they need without you having to remember.)

Additional supplies needed are shovels, hoes, hand spades, sprinklers, spray nozzles, tomato stakes or cages, utility wagons, plastic buckets, wooden crates, baskets, and brightly colored table cloths.

Contribute cash
If you prefer to make a monetary donation, checks can be made out to Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas with a memo for New Roots for Refugees, and mailed to:
Development Office
Catholic Charities
9720 West 87th Street
Overland Park, Kansas 66212

For More Information or to volunteer, contact:
Rachel Bonar



  1. katherine Kelly said

    that is a lovely article- thank you for seeing the beauty and miraculousness of what they are doing-

  2. Dear brothers & Sister in Christ,

    Thank you for your charity work for Myanmar Refugees. May God bless you all for thousand times for your kindness. Lots of Refugees in Malaysia also need support. We, K’Cho Catholic Community is working with them within in our capacity.

    God bless!
    Bernardine Shing Lin Naing

  3. Ron Hutchison said

    It takes a village…in so many different ways.

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