Two months ago, before the coronavirus pandemic transformed the world, I met in Manchester with a man named Mukhtar Idahow. He was born in Somalia, raised in Kenya, and has been advocating for refugees in New Hampshire for about 15 years.
This story is part of our series Lifelines: Addressing Trauma in the Age of COVID-19
Idahow brought me to this squat brick building on Spruce Street. At the time, the walls were stripped to the studs. On the unfinished subfloor lay piles of discarded wiring and other construction debris.
Idahow described how soon this space would be brimming with locally harvested fruits and vegetables.
“We anticipate here to be our main operation center,” he said.
Idahow is the Executive Director of the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. They run a program called Fresh Start Farms, which connects New Hampshire refugees with an opportunity to use their farming skills here in America.
This space will be their first store.
“This would be our main door,” says Idahow. “We’d be selling food here. A community room there, office space for our program manager and then we’d be going down the other side of the building, where we have additional operations.”
Even during the pandemic, Fresh Start Farms has more than a dozen refugees working on farms in Concord and Dunbarton.
One goal of the organization, says Idahow, is to connect people with the foods they need locally. The other goal is to help the farmers themselves.
“A lot of our communities, depending on where they are from, have faced trauma back home,” he says. “This is a safe environment in which the organization that facilitates the process is led by someone of color.”
Idahow says some of the Somali refugees he works with live with traumatic memories of the Civil War there: having family members raped, killed, or taken away from them.
“So how to move from that to a whole different life is difficult,” he says. “And the way to do that is, people open opportunity for them.”
Idahow says that opportunity is more than just economic. He says it’s socially and psychologically beneficial to feel control over your economic future, but also to be in a safe place where you can talk to people who may have experienced similar traumatic events.
“When you’re at the farm, talking to people like you, staff that speak your language, feel somebody is taking care of you, you don’t concentrate on the past, you concentrate on the future.”
That holds true for Isho Mohamed of Manchester, who began farming in the States more than a decade ago. She spoke through an interpreter about her experience leaving Somalia and first going to Kenya.
“Back home, when we fleed from the civil war, a lot of us were farmers,” said Muhamed. “Some of our farmers were taken away by force. We lost the farming, because our family’s living depended 100% on farming. Going through the trauma of taking your property by force affected my life and coming to Kenya, there was a freedom as we have here.”
Mohamad says she never expected to be part of a program that would help her earn money and help her feel a sense of ownership.
COVID-19 has now created new challenges for the state’s refugee population, as some struggle to access unemployment, health information, or remote education.
But when we caught back up with Mukhtar Idahow by phone, he said the program’s farmers are doing okay. They’re still doing the essential work of growing food.
“That environment of them becoming busy with something that would have a better outcome for them kind of alleviates the depression of thinking of life they may have gone through back home,” he says.
Idahow says he’s given his farmers masks and gloves and he’s advised them to practice physical distancing as they work.
Earlier this month, Fresh Start Farms announced it sold out all its summer farm shares, setting the stage for a busy season for Isho Mohamad and other refugee farmers.
Unless something changes, Idahow says the new store on Spruce Street will be ready to open to the public next week.