“Usually the most challenging is where is the money? How are you going to make this dream true?
That’s Abdulkadir Chirambo, and his dream is to build a community garden — but not just any garden. He wants to build a community and market space for the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh. It’s an organization that serves the roughly 500 Somali Bantu refugee and immigrant families who call Pittsburgh their home. Abdulkadir is a community organizer for the group, and he’s a state representative for the national organization.
An urban farm symbolizes everything they hope to achieve for their members. There’s cultural preservation, thanks to the fruits and vegetables they could grow from Somalia. And there’s the dreams of self-sufficiency. Not only would these farmers be taking home fruits and veggies for their families, but they’d also be selling them to neighbors, creating a sustainable business. But maybe most importantly, a garden would offer protection for the Somali Bantu elders.
“They can train the younger ones, like me, the other kids who come after me. Some of the other members ask like, they are just staying home all the time and they want something to be done.”
Building an urban farm sounds easy, but it’s turned out to be anything but. Last year’s garden was a disaster, but not because of bad weather, or even the wrong crops. The garden was ravaged.
“We tried this last year, to do it the other way around, without having the fence, and it was very disrespectful. We don’t want to do it again. Because you can tell people, like to put a tag around this and you know, do not come through, but animals — you cannot tell them that.”
In search of a fence, Abdulkhadir tried a new tactic this year: working with the city. First, he talked to folks at Pittsburgh’s Change Agency.
“I went to Betty Cruz while I was looking with others and I was like, we have this dream. Where are we going to find space and also resources?”
She put him in contact with Shelly, the Vacant Lot Tool Kit Coordinator within Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning. Shelly helped Abdulkadir get his new plot of land and secured soil testing, so the fruits and vegetables would be safe to eat. The space is a vacant lot in Perry South, at the corner of North Charles and Strauss. A mural of civil rights leaders and Trayvon Martin overlooks the lush, grassy field, which the city pays to mow regularly. The plot is bordered by a rusted US Post Office box and a few homes.
“We went out there and knocked on the door and put in a request and see if we could be put the farm out. Everyone was happy.”
With the blessing of the neighbors and soil testing squared away, Abdulkadir and his fellow urban farmers have been studying up on what to grow. Thanks to a paid training program through the Northern Area Multi Service Center, he’s learning how to harvest familiar fruits and vegetables in an environment that is anything but familiar. Abdulkadir came to Pittsburgh when he was nine months old, so all of this schooling is new to him. But for the elders, it’s a refresher on knowledge they already had — with a twist.
“Planting onions, back home, if they plant onions, all they do is like make the soil wet and put it together and start keeping it. But here, when he put the soil together, he covered it with a plastic. He says it’s a protection from the insects, not to eat the seeds. It was a little harder, and one of the elders said that there is an easy way to do that. And he said, yeah I know, but here we have a lot of insects.”
Abdulkadir hopes the training will help the group qualify for a city grant, so they can finally afford a fence. From there, they’ll turn to Rayden Sorack, the Community Program Manager at Grow Pittsburgh. Rayden has spent the past five years helping aspiring farmers like Abdulkadir get their gardens off the ground. After working with Pittsburgh’s Bhutanese community in Mt. Oliver, he knows immigrant groups require special considerations.
“What’s running meetings like working with translation, how do we make sure we’re getting seeds and plants that are culturally relevant? We’re learning a lot about the dynamics within that particular community, and what refugee communities are facing in this region.
Grow Pittsburgh has exactly what Abdulkhadir needs: a free tool-lending library. Once he has the tools, he’ll be read to plant. At that point, the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council will step in with guidance on how to sell their fruits and vegetables in a market.
If you’ve been keeping track, that’s FIVE city agencies, organizations, and nonprofits to make one garden possible. For persistent community organizers like Abdulkadir, that’s nothing. But for the less connected, it’s a problem, and these groups recognize it. This week, the “Immigrant & Refugee Farming and Food Access” working group will convene for the first time in 2017. It’s a group that includes many of the organizations who have helped Abdulkadir along the way, and they’ve got a singular mission: strengthening collaboration between the organizations and supporting more farmers.
“My attitude I’m bringing to next Thursday is like, ‘Okay, we haven’t met in a while, a lot of crazy stuff has been going on, in the country in general, how are people doing? What are the new things we’re concerned with right now? What are the old concerns we’ve had for a while? What are some things people are working on that are coming up?’”
Rayden hopes this meeting will help build awareness of the resources available within Pittsburgh, and maybe even inspire future farmers to create gardens of their own.
For now, Abdulkhadir waits for his dream. “It’s in somebody else’s hand. It’s not in my hands. If it was, like I had everything that needs to be done, then yes. I would say yes, this year. Since nothing is in my hands right now, I’m still looking.”
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it turns out it takes one to raise a garden too.