Burundian refugees till soil in Stafford
Nzeyimana Jackson’s parents named him “trust God to provide a harvest.”
That advice has carried him from his childhood cut short in Burundi’s civil war to his 36 years in a Tanzanian refugee camp to his new life in Fredericksburg.
And whether tilling rented land in Africa or borrowed dirt in Stafford County, Jackson has reaped the rewards of arduous labor.
Jackson was 4 when his parents fled a brutal civil war in Burundi in 1972. He then spent nearly four decades in a refugee camp, where the future stretches indeterminately and a person’s destiny relies mostly on the kindness of strangers and the luck of the refugee resettlement lottery.
In 2008, Jackson and his family were resettled in Stafford through the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. Two church groups stepped in to help: Fredericksburg Baptist and Mount Ararat Baptist. They aided the family with rent money, English lessons and job searches.
Jackson got a job quickly. Within a year, he had two jobs: washing dishes and working construction.
He had two steady paychecks. But he also had a dormant passion for working the soil, a love he developed growing up in the refugee camp, where his family rented a garden to cultivate beans, rice, bananas, cabbage and cassava, an African root vegetable.
When Jackson married Ndayambaje Neema and the pair welcomed seven children, he supplemented the family’s refugee rations of beans and rice with his crops.
After the family settled in Virginia, Jackson’s paychecks and the money Neema earned cleaning a Stafford County elementary school kept the family housed, but left little money for extras, such as clothes, school supplies and transportation.
Then, Jackson lost his construction job as the economy tanked. With help from a Sunday school class at Mount Ararat, he got a job packing convenience foods at Greencore in Stafford.
He worked nights at Greencore and weekends at Perkins Restaurant. That left Jackson’s days free for his dream to grow.
He started with tomatoes and harvested enough to feed his family and some other refugees living in the Fredericksburg area.
Jackson imagined a crop that would yield more produce. A friend who was resettled near Seattle had started the Hope Burundian Community Cooperative, a group of Burundian farmers who turned to farming when they had trouble getting jobs. Jackson flew to Washington state to meet his friend and tour the cooperative’s farm.
He came back to Stafford determined to produce a similar cooperative. And so the Fredericksburg Hope Burundian Community sprouted.
Allen Bennett, a member of Fredericksburg Baptist Church, offered land in Falmouth for the cooperative’s crops and talked his neighbor into giving up some dirt, too.
“This whole property, for us, was a gift from God,” Bennett said. “And so it was appropriate for us to share it. To see this land used for something so positive is great.”
Two years ago, Jackson and his wife and 10 other Burundian families planted the first seeds in that Stafford soil.
Jackson wanted some seeds that shared his roots, so he ordered some from Africa—for corn, eggplant and callaloo, which is similar to spinach.
The vegetables aren’t exactly like their American counterparts; the eggplant is white, the corn is more than 10 feet tall with ears the size of Jackson’s forearms. But, like Jackson, they’ve acclimated to their new land and have produced enough of a crop to eat and to sell.
“The children have something to eat that is good, healthy,” Jackson said. “We divide the harvest. We say, ‘This one is for sale, this one is for us.’”
Some of the Burundians have stopped farming because they have day jobs. But about seven families still work the soil. They sell the bounty at the Spotsylvania Farmers Market on Saturdays and share the profits. Most are in a savings account. Jackson hopes the money will add up to enough for a greenhouse, a tractor and some higher-quality hoes, so he can lengthen the growing season and increase the harvest.
Jackson dreams about the garden’s future while working the land. He doesn’t have much time for actual dreams, however. Between his two jobs, his family and the garden, Jackson gets about three or four hours of sleep each night.
And even when he gets a chance to lie down, sleep eludes him.
“I think too much,” Jackson said. “I think about the children, about their clothes, food.”
And sometimes those thoughts turn earthy—and he thinks about weeds. And bugs, deer and crows, which have all been nibbling on the cooperative’s vegetables. The bean plants’ leaves resemble a greenish gray lace because the bugs have devoured the foliage. Some corn husks stand empty. And the stalks of an American variety of corn that Jackson planted have all withered.
Jackson shook his head, surveying the damaged crops during a recent morning. “Oh, God,” he groaned. “We have a problem here.”
But within moments, he was laughing with Renessea Uwezo, his youngest daughter, and Yamungu, his 4-year-old grandson.
He led the pair in an African song about how God is present in both good times and bad.
He turned to look back at the garden, raised his arms to the sky and said, “I believe God. I believe there will be a harvest.”
Then he picked up his hoe and headed for the field, where Neema was already at work.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
For years, more than 300,000 Burundians languished in camps while the international community assumed the refugees would soon be able to return to their home country in central Africa. But tensions simmered for decades—with many bursts of violence, leaving the refugees in limbo.
The camps became a purgatory, where no one knew if any other future awaited. Even those refugees willing to brave the violence back home no longer had land to claim. In 30 years, the refugees had started new families, with children who had no homeland; many were not citizens of any country.
In 2006, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began resettling large numbers of Burundians in other countries.
—Amy Flowers Umble
WANT TO GO?
The Fredericksburg Hope Burundian Cooperative sells produce most Saturdays at the Spotsylvania Farmers Market, which is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the commuter lot at the corner of Gordon Road and State Route 3.