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.

Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer/AP
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.

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.

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.

It's at the Mackovjak farm, in Madison Township, that a new trade is taking root.

On a recent morning, a warm fall sun beamed down upon three men from Bhutan as they stooped among long rows of rutabaga, onions, and turnips. With gestures, Mackovjak showed them how to thin the leafy crops, and the Bhutanese fell quietly to work.

Indra Pyakurel, a father of six, once owned his own farm in Bhutan. He grew rice and pumpkins and oranges. Now he's tending tomatoes and other exotic vegetables. He's not getting paid yet. But at night, he leaves with bags of fresh produce for his family.

Pyakurel and his co-workers — Lal Bhujel and Rohit Basnet — represent three of nine Bhutanese families learning to plant, tend, harvest, and sell Midwest crops. They take turns vanpooling in from Lakewood, 50 miles away, work the fields, and sleep overnight in a trailer.

There's a learning curve. Back in Bhutan, the men plowed with an ox.

But the education goes both ways, Mr. Mackovjak says. When they first arrived at his farm in April, the Bhutanese asked if they could pick wild greens he considered weeds. A Google search on "lambsquarter" revealed a nutritious salad green consumed in much of the world.

Unfamiliar with pesticides, the Bhutanese farm is without them. What they can't eat or sell, they pickle or jar.

Mackovjak, the grandson of immigrants from Slovakia, said he sees his grandparents in the Bhutanese — hardworking people seeking a better life. He also sees a needed expertise.

"There's a need for farmers," he says. "Most Americans don't want to do agricultural work. That's the truth. These guys, they love the work."

The region's Hindu community envisions a business strategy: an organic farm supported by its customers. They are pulling the refugees into the Community Supported Agriculture movement, where people buy shares of a farm in exchange for a slice of the harvest.

Already, about 70 local Hindu families have purchased shares of the Bhutanese farm, Sreenath said. The investment will buy seeds and supplies for next year, when the Bhutanese intend to extend their handshake deal with Mackovjak, and maybe pay themselves for their labors.

The long-term goal is to own and farm their own land, as they did in Bhutan.

Tom Mrosko, the refugee coordinator for Cleveland Catholic Charities, which initially resettled the Bhutanese in northeast Ohio, said the strategy shows promise.

For lifelong farmers like Pyakurel, it offers a priceless measure of peace.

Knee-deep in ripening cucumbers, a cool wind in his face, Mr. Pyakurel smiled as if he wanted to be nowhere else.

"Life good," he said, as he plunged his hands into the earth.

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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