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Some of Zar Ree’s most potent memories of her homeland, Burma, are the taste of spicy chili sauce and the sound of bullets flying.
Ree fled Burma, now called Myanmar by its ruling government, with her mother and younger siblings amid gunfire in 1997 after government forces burned down their village in a campaign against rebel ethnic groups.
Ree’s family made it across the border to Thailand, where they settled in a refugee camp with thousands of other families, she said in an interview using an interpreter. The Thai border is dotted with the camps, which were intended to serve as temporary housing for people fleeing Burma’s civil war but have remained populated for decades.
Life in the camps has been documented in news stories for years as restrictive and impoverished, with residents relying almost entirely on outside aid.
After nine years in the camp, Ree, her husband and their children were brought to the U.S. by a voluntary resettlement agency. They landed first in South Carolina, but Ree said the family, who are ethnically Karen (pronounced kuh-RINN), felt isolated there and moved in 2007 to Carrboro, where other Karen families had been resettled beginning in 2000..
Orange County embraced the refugees; UNC hired many of the newcomers, including Ree, to work in housekeeping on campus. Faith-based groups helped them find housing, clothing and food, and connected them to medical services.
Ree said the family was grateful to be out of the crowded camp in Thailand, but adjusting to life in the U.S. was a challenge.
Nothing was familiar, including the food.
When she first tasted pizza, Ree said, “I thought it had gone bad because of the smell.”
In 2009, Ree heard about a new project starting up by the Orange County Partnership for Young Children with help from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Triangle Land Conservancy. Called Transplanting Traditions, it was to be a community garden for refugees from Burma, a place where they could farm — as most had done growing up in their homeland — with some coaching on how to adapt to the climate, crops and soil conditions of North Carolina.
“We all like the foods of our childhood,” said Flicka Bateman, director of the Refugee Support Center in Carrboro, a volunteer agency that helps refugees transition to life in Orange County. “I think maintaining any connection with the culture you were born into and love is good.
“And then there is the concreteness of a garden. You know, your hard work pays off.”
It did for Ree, who said she had developed high blood pressure and felt poorly all the time before she began working at the garden. Once she started growing and eating traditional Southeast Asian vegetables, raised without chemicals and flavored with lemongrass and chilis from the same garden, her health improved.
The garden has given Ree and other refugees a financial boost as well, as they are able to sell some of what they grow on the 8-acre farm. Shoppers can buy produce raised on the farm at the Chapel Hill Farmers Market held on Tuesdays from April to November, or order a monthly subscription through which they get a box of goods. There are American-style vegetables — broccoli, carrots, kale — and Asian favorites such as bitter melon and Asian pumpkins, For a small extra fee, subscribers can add eggs or fresh flowers produced on the farm.
After years of working in the garden, Ree said, “I’m good at farming. They call me a farmer and I feel proud of it.”