Story Place: A New Life in a New Land

Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 7th, 2016, by Keegan Pyle. “I tell new refugees that arrive here about this farm,” says Butoyi Reverian, looking out over tended fields. “You can grow the food your family wants to eat … and most of us know how to grow food.”

Reverian is a 43 year-old refugee from Rwanda, who lives now in West Springfield with his wife, Uzakunda, and two of his four children, ages 3 to 14.

The fields he tends are at New Lands Farm in West Springfield, where refugees are given a plot of land to farm, along with tools, seeds and compost at a very discounted cost.

He works there regularly with his wife, raising produce for his family, and to sell.

Reverian arrived in the United States eight years ago, and has been working hard since to start a new life in western Massachusetts.

“I like Springfield,” Reverian said. “The people are nice, the jobs are good, and the schools are good for my children. I would not want to return to Rwanda to raise my family there.”

Rwanda, in Central/East Africa, one of the smallest countries in Africa, suffered one of the worst genocides in history: From 1994 to 1996, more than 2 million Rwandans, including Reverian, fled to neighboring countries to seek refuge.

He was 23 at the time, and ended up spending the next 12 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. While there, he began a career as a health aid in the camp’s clinic. He also met and married his wife, and had two children.

“It was very hard, living in the refugee camp,” Reverian said. “But you learn how to start over, and make it home as much as you can.”

When Reverian arrived in West Springfield eight years ago, he spoke no English, but, with the help of Ascentria Care Alliance, a refugee resettlement organization in West Springfield, he started to learn the language. Shortly after he arrived, another refugee resettlement organization, Jewish Family Services, helped him get a job as a metal cleaner at a print shop. Eight years later, he still works there, full-time.

Uzakunda stayed home with the children until recently, when she started a job in housekeeping at the Chicopee Marriott Hotel.

The two are hard workers. On Mondays and Fridays, after work, they go to the farm. Reverian also continues to study English at Springfield Technical Community College, where he’s preparing to get his GED. He says he wants to go to college to become a nurse.

“It was very hard, my first years here with so little English. People speak so fast here, but I’ve worked hard to get better at communication.”

Tilling the land

Reverian has been farming at New Lands Farm, located about 15 minutes from his home, for six years; he raises produce that helps feed his family and friends and sells the remainder.

“I’m guessing about seven percent of my income comes from selling my produce,” Reverian said. “Every bit helps.”

New Lands Farm leases 10 acres of land in West Springfield, specifically for new Americans to farm. Most farmers there are refugees from Bhutan, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia. And though most have been resettled in cities because there are greater employment opportunities and social service networks, they often have come from rural areas in their homelands.

“Farming at New Lands Farm really fills a need that they can’t get elsewhere,” said program coordinator Hannah Converse. “It’s a shame that refugees are arriving here with so much farming background and their skills go to waste because they don’t have access to land, or access to the network of farmers in the area, which is crucial.”

New Lands Farm subsidizes half the cost of the land; it costs a family $200 a year for an eighth of an acre. It also provides training, seeds at a discount, compost, tools, and access to the local farmers’ market and Go Fresh Mobile Market in Springfield. Most families who farm there sell at least a portion of their produce collectively with New Lands Farm.

The farmers are free to plant what they want; the most common crops are those unique to their culture. Reverian plants mainly gilo, corn, kale, mchicha (a green) and beans.

“They have taught me how to compost, and how to market my produce,” Reverian said. “Also, how to make beds. In Africa, we don’t plant in beds. But when you do, the plants are much better!”

Reverian says he likes living in West Springfield, but misses Rwanda.

“It is my home. I would go back to visit, but not move there to live,” he said. “I am treated well here, and it feels safe.”