A Refugee Farmer's Hopes, Goals and Sambusas

Mar 9, 2017

Rukia Bilal and her Mom
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

  Rukia Bilal arrived in the states as a Somali-Bantu refugee when she was 14 years old. Today she's farming at the Flats Mentor Farm, a program of World Farmers in Lancaster, MA. As a successful beginning farmer, she's looking to expand her business to include selling her produce to grocers, and farmers' markets and making and selling her homemade  sambusas. 






Farmers at the Flats Mentor Farm regularly host farm tours for the USDA, Mass. Department of Agriculture, representatives from the community and the press.
Credit Aug. 2014, photo by Ali Berlow

Between 2003 and 2004, the United States accepted 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees for resettlement. According to the archives of the US Department of State, these people had been: “languishing in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing Somalia when civil war broke out in 1990”.

I met one of these refugees from the Flats Mentor Farm. Rukia Bilal. She first learned about farming from her mother.

Rukia Bilal: I don’t know anything about Somalia because I was really a baby when we left there but in Kenya I remember at age of eleven I’ve seen her, help her plant things and water stuff from you know, outside we had a tent so where we we’re were eight of us in this little tent and we didn’t really have a closed back yard but it was open space where you can, between you and your neighbor you could do small crops so they can feed and have enough food for the children Rukia was seven months old when her family fled Somalia in 1990. She was fourteen by the time they were accepted to come to the US and they live in Worcester.

Rukia said that  living and farming conditions in the Kenyan refugee camp were difficult and even dangerous, especially for women. But now she’s a US citizen and her life has changed dramatically.

"Today, I have a bachelor’s degree and I’m telling you right now, when I got here I couldn’t write my name that is really a success and that is really an opportunity and my kids today, I look back and I say ‘oh boy, you guys are lucky you were born ….this is a great place, you don’t know what’s outside there and you don’t want to know it trust me'.

Rukia is farming again, at the Flats Mentor Farm in Lancaster, It’s a teaching farm and part of the non-profit organization, World Farmers.There are 70 acres of rich bottom soil at the Flats, home to this collective of 250 immigrant, refugee and beginning farmers from all over the world. They are Hmong, Burundi, Kenyan and more.

Like most small family farmers, Rukia grows food to feed her family first. She is a mother to four children, all born here, ages 10, nine, five and two years old.

"Right now it’s like a choice not to really spend $20 out of trying to feed my kids healthy meal where I can really make the sweet chard and the spinach and the green beans, tomatoes and I bring it home with basically not paying a dime except that the work that I put in."

The Flats Mentor Farm provides these beginning farmers with education and training on how to grow food including the rules and regulations for handling and selling their crops to businesses like Market Basket and other small grocers in Massachusetts. The farmers also mentor each other, sharing information and infrastructure like irrigation.

This will be Rukia’s third season farming on two 25-foot square plots. Her goal is to grow enough to sell at farmers’ markets and to stores and she has some other plans for her crops too.  

" And [the]other thing I’m hoping is being able to make some homemade food also to add up, cultural food and sell them to a farmers’ market that’s my other hope see I know that there’s rules and regulations to follow and whatever it takes I’m willing to follow those rules.

In order to sell cooked food Rukia needs access to a commercial kitchen. That’s also something that the World Farmers organization is helping her with. Her plan is to make sambusas – they’re like a small, savory, hand-held pie or turnover and she brought some for me to try. They were delicious. Spicy but not overbearing. Really gratifying.

"So you make beef and add potatoes, some garlics, hot pepper, onions, and then you stuff it in to this little piece of bread and then you close it and it’s like a triangle.

This is one dish that we make and it’s very, very special. We make it like special occasion, we definitely don’t do it like grieving like funerals we don’t do for those times but we do it for weddings, anniversaries, engagement, like happy time like when welcoming a baby to the home. Hopefully if everything goes well which I’m crossing my finger that’s my next step and I’m thinking that doing that will give me the step ahead to hopefully move forward with my goals of doing my own little thing late in life.

AB : I wouldn’t say late in life. You’re 27 (laughter)

" I’m 27 yeah, I’m 27 hopefully I’m thinking of having my own little farm, land, that’s just a huge goal in the back of my head that when the money comes (laughter) I’m hoping that within 5-6 years I don’t know hopefully I’ll be able to look some like a small area that’s enough for me and my family to farm it’s what I’m hoping for."

Tasting Rukia's Sambusas at Flats Mentor Farm
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

Here is a  recipe for Somali sambusas like Rukia's is here is a recipe for Somali sambusas like Rukia's.

This Local Food Report was edited by Viki Merrick for Atlantic Public Media