Manitoba

Yazidi refugee-run farm grows tenfold, hopes to offer financial independence

What started as half an acre of potatoes has blossomed into an entire farming operation that hopes to provide more than 30 families with food and financial security.

Families grow 9,000 kilos of produce to eat and sell

Volunteer Dimah Abdulkareem, 17, with some of the program's youngest farmers. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

A farming project for Yazidi refugees is growing into a sustainable food source — and hopes to nurture roots for their independence.

What started last year as half an acre of potatoes has blossomed into an entire farming operation ten times the size, growing a wide range of vegetables and fruit this summer.

With  9,000 kilograms of produce grown this season, the 200 refugees aren't just feeding their families, but have started to sell at local farmers' markets, giving them an extra source of income.

It's a sense of pride for volunteer Dimah Abdulkareem, who helps grow and sell vegetables on the donated land in Saint François Xavier, Man.

"I don't think there's anything greater than bringing people and showing them something that you've been doing your whole life back home," the 17 year old said. Abdulkareem came to Canada from Iraq with her family five years ago.

Yazidi families harvest vegetables on donated land. Members of a religious minority in Iraq, they are typically farmers which makes it a natural fit for them to farm in Manitoba. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Before they were refugees, many of these Yazidi families were farmers, so they know exactly what they're doing, according to Nafiya Naso, a Yazidi resettlement coordinator and member of the Yazidi-Canadian community.

"A lot of the Yazidi refugees who have recently arrived, most of them were held captive by ISIS. They have family members missing, a lot of family members who were killed by ISIS," Naso said.

"We want to make Canada feel like home. By doing stuff that they know, that they're experts in, like farming. It's a kind of therapy."

This farming program was launched last year by Winnipeg-based Operation Ezra, a coalition of Jewish and other faith groups and charities which help sponsor and support Yazidi refugees.

The more than 30 Yazidi families tend to the donated land all season, then harvest the fruits of their labour. That means they have healthy food to take home, a huge help when they're living with little.

"When they're given a monthly allowance by the government, they're placed in housing that's not really affordable, every dollar counts," she said.

From non-perishable handouts to farm-fresh success

This year, the wide array of food including peppers, squash and tomatoes means the families can also eat the diet they're used to, according to Michel Aziza, the chair of Operation Ezra.

"We organized food drives and most of the food we end up collecting was canned or dry foods, which they really didn't know what to do with, nor would they actually eat," he said.

"So we actually gave them a catalogue of fruits and vegetables and then we asked them what they're used to growing and what they're used to eating."

The hope is by selling the extra produce, families will also be able to become more financially independent. (Ezra Belotte-Cousineau)

The hope is that eventually the program won't just be a food generator, but a revenue generator too.

For refugees who have had to rely on handouts or have difficulty finding employment because of language barriers, the farm could also lead to financial independence.

The aim is to make the program even larger, Aziza said.

"Next year, instead of relying on donations of seeds and land, they will be able to buy their own seeds, and maybe lease their own land, buy equipment and buy tools, which is really what they want to do," he said.

For refugees who have difficulty finding employment, the farm could lead to financial independence. (Daniel Gagne/Radio-Canada)

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca

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