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Bhutanese refugees find their calling as urban farmers

Seven thousand miles from their ancestral home, Bhutanese refugees are going back to their roots and tilling the good earth.

By ROBERT L. SMITHThe Plain Dealer/AP / September 28, 2009

Bhutanese refugee Lal Bhujel, left, harvests some kohlrabi in fields belonging to Mark Mackovjak, in background, in Madison, Ohio. Mr. Mackovjak is helping the Bhutanese, some of whom were farmers in Bhutan, grow vegetables and sell their harvests in local farmers' markets.

Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer/AP

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CLEVELAND

The families from the edge of the Himalayan Mountains arrived in Cleveland last winter as other refugees have — poor, cold, and bewildered. They had once been farmers in the tropical lowlands of Bhutan in southern Asia. Suddenly, they faced an economy based on medicine and advanced manufacturing. A brutal recession ensured there were few jobs to train for.

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Their Old World skills could not help them anymore. Or could they?

On a recent morning, Nandu Poudel, and O.K. Basnet, stood behind a table laden with fresh vegetables in the thick of a farmers market on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic.

Men and women in hospital scrubs and lab coats streamed by. Some stopped to buy the sweet tomatoes and the seedless Asian cucumbers offered by the two young men in fez-like Nepalese caps.

Handing over vegetables for cash, Mr. Basnet beamed like an artist selling his work.

"Farming, it's what I do," he explained in labored English, pressing a palm to his chest. "And what my father did. And his father."

The harvest of 2009 is doing more than stocking urban farmers markets in a city with a growing appetite for local agriculture. It's introducing a new class of farmers.

Seven thousand miles from their ancestral home, Bhutanese refugees are tilling the good earth outside of Cleveland and making it bloom. To the astonishment of many, they are using the old ways to gain a fresh start in their new home.

Some see a model that could employ future waves of refugees — or at least other Bhutanese. By getting back to the land, a challenged immigrant group may be getting ahead.

"We needed to put these guys to work," says Hira Fotedar, a retired Eaton Corp. executive and a friend to the local Bhutanese community. "They don't know English. They don't read. Boy, they know farming."

The farming venture sprang from a partnership between the Bhutanese families, who are mostly Hindu, and the established Hindu community of Greater Cleveland, much of it from India.

A religious minority in the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, the Hindu Bhutanese were driven from their villages in pogroms in the late 1980s. More than 100,000 ended up in refugee camps in nearby Nepal.

America has pledged to accept about 60,000 of the refugees by 2012. Some 400 have arrived in Akron, Cleveland, and Lakewood as part of the initial wave.

Soon after the first Bhutanese families arrived in Greater Cleveland in November 2008, Parma's Shiva Vishnu Temple befriended them. Temple members bought shoes for children, who were seen walking barefoot in snow, and began job training for their parents.

Sewa International, a Hindu charity with a local chapter, joined the effort.

Volunteers for Sewa, which means "service" in Sanskrit, helped train some of the men as landscapers and some of the women as seamstresses. But a bigger job source was needed.

"They kept saying, 'You know, we're farmers. We'd like to farm,' " says Sree Sreenath, a professor of mechanical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and the president of Sewa International USA.

Mr. Sreenath knew a horticulturist at the University of Akron, who steered him to Mark Mackovjak, a Lake County farmer with land to lease.