Weigl: Karen refugees grow tastes of home

aweigl@newsobserver.comApril 25, 2012 

The Transplanting Traditions Farm will be part of the 17th annual Piedmont Farm Tour this weekend.

COURTESY OF ORANGE COUNTY PARTNERSHIP FOR YOUNG CHILDREN

  • Want to go? The 17th annual Piedmont Farm Tour of 40 farms from Cedar Grove to Chapel Hill is 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25 per car in advance, $30 on the day, or $10 to visit one farm. Details are at http://carolinafarmstewards.org/piedmontfarmtour.shtml The Transplanting Traditions Community Farm is at the Irvin Learning Farm, 2912 B Jones Ferry Road, Chapel Hill. Learn more athttp://ocpyc.wordpress.com/

Wherever we find ourselves, we often long for a taste of home.

That is true whether you are a transplanted New Yorker in search of a good bagel or a Southerner who finds herself north of the Mason-Dixon line and longing for a decent biscuit.

In this case, Paw Pa, a Karen refugee who once called Thailand and Myanmar home, missed the gourds, turmeric, long beans and luffa that are staples of her homeland’s cuisine. (Luffa is a long green vegetable that is unknown to most Americans who might be more familiar with it in its dried form: a loofah, or bath sponges.)

Now, thanks to the Orange County Partnership for Young Children, Pa, 46, and two dozen other Karen families can grow those vegetables and more as part of a community garden project called the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm.

That farm will be on display this weekend during the 17th annual Piedmont Farm Tour. You can visit the farm, take your children on a hayride, buy vegetable and fruit transplants, even purchase some Karen food. And you can meet this group of gardeners who are among the hundreds of ethnic Karen refugees who have relocated to the Orange County area in recent years.

The Karen (pronounced KA-ran) people are an ethnic group in Myanmar, also called Burma. They have been oppressed for decades and fought for independence since 1948; a ceasefire was signed earlier this year.

The Orange County Partnership for Young Children used to oversee several small community gardens where low-income families tended plots. But the Karen refugees, many of whom were farmers back in Myanmar, mentioned that they would love more gardening space.

With a grant from the federal refugee resettlement agency, the project moved to the Triangle Land Conservancy’s Irvin Learning Farm & Nature Center, where the families now have 2 1/2 acres under cultivation.

In the process, it has become much more than a community garden. A family can have two rows just for its own use. Or it can tend four rows and grow vegetables and fruits for family members and a community-supported agriculture customer who pays $20 a week for a share of the crops from May to October. Or it can tend 10 rows and provide weekly shares to four customers.

The families had to attend a growers’ school this winter to learn about sustainable agriculture techniques and business.

Farm manager Kelly Owensby says, “It’s such a treat for me to have a group of people who are so excited about learning.”

And refugees like Tri Sa, 44, who works at night as a housekeeper at UNC-Chapel Hill, are excited to have a plot of dirt to call their own.

“This is my interest. This is my hobby,” Sa says through an interpreter. “Since my childhood, my parents were farmers; I want to be a farmer.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848 or aweigl@newsobserver.com

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