Cultivating Local Businesses

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I’ve written about the excellent organization, Cultivate KC, before. This month, I want to draw attention to a program run jointly by Cultivate KC and the Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. It’s called “New Roots for Refugees,” which teaches refugees who’ve been assigned to resettle in the metro the skills they need to run their own farm.

I recently met a Burmese family who completed the four-year program and are operating a farm and selling their products, a difficult journey in and of itself. But what really impressed me was the fact that in addition to running the small farm where they grow a half dozen or more vegetables, the family recently opened their own Burmese restaurant, Sone Ze Yaw, on St. John in Kansas City’s Old Northeast neighborhood. Mee Nge (mother, wife, and cook), Swa Dit (husband, father, and cook), Ra Mat (their son), and Ali Dawod (Mee Nge’s brother who mans the front of the house) joined the “New Roots for Refugees” program in 2014 after relocating to Kansas City.

“We came to Kansas City from Indiana. We had some relatives and friends living here. They said it was a good place, so we came,” Ra Mat told me, interpreting for his parents.

Photography by Alicia Alferman

Mee Nge, Swa Dit, and Ai Dawod speak very little English. Ra Mat’s English is halting, but it’s certainly better than my Burmese, so we did the best we could. I asked the family how difficult it was to run both a farm and a restaurant. Ra Mat didn’t hesitate on that one. “Hard. It’s hard, but opening a restaurant was something we always wanted to do even going back to when we lived in Burma,” Ra Mat said. He says he and his mother selling their vegetables at the City Market on weekends while his dad and uncle man the restaurant, but I get a feeling the four of them are almost always at either the farm, the market, or the restaurant.

I wanted to get some background on the New Roots program, so I contacted Katherine Kelly, Cultivate KC’s Executive Director. Kelly says there are 16 families in the program at any given time, with three to five farmers graduating annually. “We have graduated 29 farmers, and of those, 24 own and operate their own independent farm business. If they’re in the four-year program, they sell under the New Roots for Refugees brand. Once they graduate, Catholic Charities helps them develop their own independent brand,” Kelly told me.

Mee Nge, Swa Dit, Ra Mat, and Ali Dawod operate the Ramatdar Farm, which produces vegetables they sell at the market and feature in the restaurant. “We made mistakes in the beginning, but over time, we learned how to tend the soil and the crops. Now, we grow kale, swiss chard, collard greens, carrots, onions, garlic, beans, peas, tomatoes, and spinach among others,” Rat Ma was told by his mother. There a couple of other items that didn’t translate, but I wasn’t concerned as cultivating more than ten items that you learned to grow from scratch is impressive enough.

I asked the family what Sone Ze Yaw means and was told “Everyone Comes Together.” And so it’s been for Mee Nge, Swa Dit Ra Mat, and Ali Dawod-coming to Kansas City together, going through The “New Roots for Refugees” program together, and owning and operating a farm and restaurant together.

For her part, Kelly says she couldn’t be prouder of, or happier for, the family. “They work so hard as farmers and still found time to start up this second business. They’ve taken every opportunity given to them and are determined to make a life in their new home.  Plus, they are just the nicest people and I am always happy when good people get engaged in our food system,” Kelly stated.

Mee Nge, Swa Dit, Ra Mat, and Ali Dawod are equally grateful for the chance to start over in a new country, a new city, and in new businesses. “We’re happy. It’s like a dream come true, the American Dream. It’s hard work. We’re all very busy. But we’re happy,” Mee Nge, Swa Dit, and Ali Dawod said, no interpreter necessary.

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