Hope in a Quarter Acre: A Congolese Immigrant Finds New Home in Maine

Omasombo Katuka stands in a field filled with uprooted carrots, discarded eggplant bushes and wilting corn stalks. It’s noon in early October, but the sun already seems to have lost its strength. He frowns at a cluster of kale growing crookedly along a row, bends to pick off the fresh leaves.

Farm standThe rows of kale have grown in green, crammed between drier and more decaying crops like patchwork. The corn has passed; the green pepper, too. Omasombo’s plot – a narrow, thing quarter acre slice of land – lies just 100 yards past the pebbled driveway and next to the four greenhouses where the crops are sorted and stored before sale. A little over a mile from the town line of Lewiston, the farm takes up two sides of Littlefield Road in Lisbon, Maine. The farm buildings are unassuming: a one-room farm stand, painted a rusty red; an open-air wash station, punctuated down the middle and both sides by a long, thin tables littered with wash basins; and three smaller greenhouses for harvested crops.

The farm is run by the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project, a farming education program exclusively for immigrants and refugees in the Lewiston and Portland area. The year-round program couples classroom learning with practical farming to teach new Americans the physical, economic, agricultural, and financial skills they would need to grow food for income. Many of the 11-year-old project’s past participants have gone on to manage farms independently, as supplemental or the main source of income for their families.

The 30-acre farm is less than a mile from the town line of Lewiston, where Omasombo lives with his wife and eight children. It is through this farm project that Omasombo may finally have found a toe-hold, a way in to understanding his adopted country, one that had beguiled him since arriving in 2010 from a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Omasombo, a teacher in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, escaped to neighboring Tanzania after rebel soldiers threatened to attack his family. After seven years in four separate camps, the Omasombo family – Omasombo, his wife Poya, and their eight children – was resettled in the United States, in a pocket of Nashville, Tennessee, infamously dubbed “Dodge City.”

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Life in North Nashville was a shock. Tee Hassold, who taught Omasombo’s son David in the North Nashville school system, describes the family’s home. “It was a building with six duplexes lined up next to each other. Brick, cinderblock, hard floors, sparse furniture,” he told me over the phone. The ten Omasombos shared three beds.

The family received $800 in government benefits each month, supported only by a part time job Omasombo secured washing sheets at the local hospital from four to eight a.m. each morning. His wife Poya, with her limited English, could not secure a job.

Hassold came to Nashville for two years with Teach For America. His second grade classroom was half immigrants from Africa and half African Americans, a dynamic that he describes as difficult. All of Hassold’s students were from the same projects, a “bubble” of five blocks just north of downtown Main Street.

The school, among the lowest performing in the entire state of Tennessee, was comprised almost exclusively of African American students and immigrants that lived in the government projects. The school pitted the African American students against the African students. Blatant discrimination and name-calling was a daily occurrence for the kids in Hassold’s classroom, which were all immigrants. Hassold didn’t tolerate bullying in the classroom, but there wasn’t much he could do in the school’s cafeteria or the bus. “It got worse as they got older,” Hassold admits.

Once, the Omasombos had a bullet go through their window. Hassold doesn’t think it was a targeted thing, but a stray bullet. The eggs that were thrown at the house, however, were unmistakably aimed at the family. “It was someone else in David’s class who threw them,” Hassold says.

Hassold took an immediate liking to David, taking him out of Dodge City on the weekends to see the rest of Nashville. He got to know Omasombo’s family well, and began inviting the family to his place for dinner. Despite the discrimination that David and the other children faced at school, Hassold knows that it gave the children an opportunity to understand how life worked in their new home. The parents of immigrant children in Dodge City, Hassold explains, didn’t have that opportunity. Because of language barriers, discomfort, or fear, parents didn’t acknowledge each other, and insulated themselves from life outside their apartment.

Life in Dodge City was nothing close to Omasombo’s previous life. There was nothing familiar, nothing even recognizable. So when a friend from the refugee camp in Tanzania told them about his new life in a town called Lewiston, Maine, Omasombo was anxious to move his family north.

In the summer of 2012, Tee Hassold started a blog, “From Congo to Maine: Help the Omasombos Complete Their Journey.” With a heartfelt written plea and a three-minute video, Hassold raised $8,000 to fund the family’s trip to Maine. In a rented 15-seat passenger van, Hassold drove himself. The Omasombos, Hassold, and two friends left on July 18 for a three-day journey from Nashville to DC to Boston to Maine.

When the Omasombo family arrived in Lewiston, there were only three Congolese families in the city. That number is quickly changing – as word spreads of the low costs of living and opportunities for education, more immigrants and refugees are sure to come to the Pine Tree State.

The foreign-born population in Maine, while low compared to the national, has grown exponentially in recent years. Between the years 2000 and 2011, according to the Immigration Policy Center, the foreign-born population grew 16.5 percent, from 36,691 to 42,747. Of this foreign-born population, 11.5 percent of are from Africa. This percentage is much higher than the national average, in which only 4.1 percent of the total immigrant population in the United States is Africa.

After many hugs and a few tears, Hassold disappeared with the empty van headed back to Nashville, and Omasombo began looking for a place to live. For two weeks, Omasombo, Poya, and their eight children slept together in a spare bedroom at their friend’s house in Lewiston, but soon found a house with rent much cheaper than their government housing in Nashville. He enrolled his kids in the Lewiston public schools. It was then that his friend told him about an agriculture program for immigrants that was run out of Portland, a 40-minute drive to the south. Omasombo had experience farming at the refugee camp, and needed the income a season’s worth of crops might bring in. He signed up right away.

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IMG_2766The immigrant population in Lewiston is well represented on the small farm off Route 196. Daniel Ungier, the program’s training coordinator, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the participants are refugees, and two-thirds are Somali Bantu. The program began in 2002 in response to a large influx of Somali refugees in Lewiston, Maine’s second largest-city. The refugees overwhelmingly lived as subsistence farmers in Somalia, and the New American project helped them start small vegetable farms for the Lewiston community and direct markets. Since its founding, the program has grown to reflect the increasing diversity in Lewiston and the greater Portland area’s immigrant population. In 2009, the project teamed up with Cultivating Community, an organization that used sustainable agriculture as a tool for community development, and expanded to include training, marketing, and sales assistances for the immigrant participants.

Even before the days got longer, back in the late winter months when the sun shone blindingly on the thick layers of ice that blanketed Lewiston, Omasombo began to attend classes provided by the New American project to learn the nuances of agriculture and farming in New England. Omasombo drove to Portland every Monday to attend classes in production and marketing, financial literacy, and farm- and market-based ESL classes. On the third weekend of April, Omasombo drove to the farm in Lisbon for the first time, and Ungier pointed to the quarter acre of land that was now his for the next six months. As a first year participant, Omasombo was provided a quarter-acre plot, seedlings, and on-site support. Other immigrants, toiling on plots around him, had graduated to the second- and third-level of the program, which incrementally give the farmer more autonomy and responsibility for handling the growing, harvesting, and selling the crops on their own.

Apart from hands-on assistance and classroom work, the project doesn’t provide much financial hand-holding. Everything that goes into the field is the participant’s own expense, says Ungier. The first year of an immigrant’s participation, they provide the seedlings, but after that farmers much manage their crops finances independently. Omasombo, despite being in his first season, has quickly become self-sufficient. “His level of independence with marketing resembles people who have been with the program much longer… but he’s still learning how the seasons work,” says Ungier.

Farming in central Africa, it turns out, is not identical to farming in New England. In the Congo, you can plant your crops twice during the eight-month season, and sell until December. In Maine, farmers must capitalize on a short, four-month season, from June to October. The hardest thing for Omasombo was learning all the new types of food, and the dates for when the food grows best. Ungier and his team, a staff of two full time farm managers and three part time assistants, teach the immigrants how to use different machines to assist in their work. They show them, crop by crop, the quality standards to watch out for. (“People don’t accept bruises,” says Ungier.) They go to the farmers markets with them, and watch the farmers interact with the customers.

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With winter beckoning, Omasombo doesn’t come to the farm as much. Now that he has a part-time job to help support his family of ten, he can wait until the farm’s manager calls him with a request to drive out to Lisbon. Hassold, who flew out to visit with the family last fall, says that the family is much happier in Maine. “In Nashville, there was no structure for integrating them,” Hassold says. “In Maine, they have all these opportunities for integrating, but [in Nashville] there wasn’t anything like that to help them get adjusted.”

Omasombo’s children, David included, love their new schools in Lewiston. David’s third grade teacher, after reading Hassold’s blog, took an interest and visited the family often. David can relate more with his classmates – everyone plays soccer here, and they didn’t in Nashville. Omasombo likes that there is more respect shown within families and between neighbors in Maine.

OmasomboBack at the farm, Omasombo leads me through his plot. Pepper, swiss chard, beans, peas, green onion, kale and row after row of the small white eggplant. Last winter, the project organized an outreach event that attracted more than a half dozen inquiries from Congolese immigrants. Although Omasombo was the only Congolese immigrant to participate this year, Ungier thinks that many more will follow his lead for the 2014 season. “Once we have someone like Omasombo, its easier for them to explain it in their own language and on their own terms – than ours,” says Ungier.

Ungier sees potential in Omasombo – not only in his farming skills, but in his business sense. “He’s done a really phenomenal job for his first year,” says Ungier. “What’s really unique is, he’s really had his own marketing plan from the beginning.” Omasombo’s strategy has been to sell directly to the Congolese community, driving down to Portland, with its larger Congolese population, and sending his crops across the country to friends back in Nashville and even in Iowa.

Participants usually make between $1,000 and 2,000 their first year, says Ungier, although he estimates that Omasombo has made much more than this. Omasombo is especially proud of his eggplant crop, a small white eggplant that he tells me is grown in Africa. He snaps a fist-sized eggplant off the vine and holds it up for me to see. 

Next month, Omasombo will start tallying up his sales. Ungier and his staff will help the immigrants keep accurate records of their income and their expenses. And in December and January, they will once again begin their production and marketing classes, preparing for another year.

Omasombo’s first priority is to learn. The more he gleans from the process, the more farming will help earn him an income in the future. “When you are in Nashville you cannot have an opportunity to learn something like that,” he says to me. The economic and financial lessons that Omasombo is getting from the program, however, extend far beyond the farm. “They can teach me how to work in America: tomorrow I can open my own business.”

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