On Cleveland’s Largest Urban Farm, Refugees Gain Language and Job Skills

Across the Cuyahoga River from downtown Cleveland, men and women dressed in brightly colored clothing harvest vegetables from tidy rows of plantings. Multilingual conversations take place in Hindi, Nepali, Somali and English. With the Cleveland skyline as their backdrop, these refugee farmers nurture their connection to the land and to their new home.

In 2010, the Cleveland nonprofit The Refugee Response created The Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program (REAP) to support resettled refugees in the Cleveland area through farming. During the year-long program, men and women from Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Burundi, Myanmar, and Somalia learn language and job skills as they work the six-acre Ohio City Farm—one of the largest urban farms in the nation.

This year, REAP expects to harvest 22,000 pounds of produce from the farm’s hoop houses and fields. The Refugee Response leases nearly five acres of the Ohio City Farm from the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Since Donald Trump took office in January, the United States has become a less friendly place for people born in other countries. But various community groups across the U.S. have long supported refugees—often through efforts focused on agriculture.

In addition to REAP in Cleveland, projects such as Plant It Forward in Houston, New Roots in San Diego, and the Refugee Urban Agriculture Initiative in Philadelphia have found that refugees and urban farming are a good fit, and despite the hostility at the federal level, they remain committed to their work.

“We did a survey, and 80 percent of people who were coming as refugees have some sort of agricultural background,” said Refugee Response Director of Agricultural Empowerment Margaret Fitzpatrick.

That makes a farm an ideal entry into the American work force. In addition, Fitzpatrick explained, people are coming from all kinds of backgrounds, often with a history of violence and trauma. Refugees find farm work comforting and therapeutic.


Lar Doe

REAP graduate Lar Doe has been working for REAP since 2012. Although he was born in Myanmar, Doe grew up in a refugee camp on the border of Myanmar and Thailand. After spending nearly 15 years there, he was granted permission to move to the U.S. in 2010. His first jobs were in Kentucky and Iowa, but then he accepted an invitation from the Refugee Response to relocate to Cleveland. He was one of REAP’s first refugee employees.
“It is a diverse city. You can find many different people from different countries,” he said. “I feel like the local people here understand about the world.”

Language and Work Skills

Cleveland has a long history of welcoming refugees; since 1983, 17,000 displaced people have settled in the city. To better serve Cleveland’s increasing population of refugees, 16 organizations pooled their resources to form the Refugee Services Collaborative of...

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