He's sharing his farming heritage with immigrants in Akron
On a cold, windy Saturday afternoon in Akron, three Congolese teenagers are helping two Bhutanese men and an American man tear down a temporary greenhouse structure on a former urban farm site of Shanti Farms.
Shanti Farms is a nonprofit that helps immigrant and refugee communities in Akron embrace their agricultural roots in an urban environment. The materials from the greenhouse will be sent to other farm sites to be repurposed.
Bhakta Rizal runs Shanti Farms with his business partner, Tom Crain, the American in the group. Rizal is a Bhutanese man with lightly graying hair and a serious facial expression that belies the welcoming nature of the man and his work.
"I am from Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country in between China and India," said Rizal. "I became a refugee in 1992, and then I came to Nepal as a refugee because in our country, we had an ethnic cleansing."
Over 100,000 ethnically Nepali citizens of Bhutan, called Lhotshampa, were expelled under a policy called "One Nation, One People." This policy, enacted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, identified Dzongkha, a Tibetic language spoken by the majority of the Bhutanese people, as the one language permitted in the nation.
The minority Nepali community which had existed in Bhutan for nearly a century found their native language, and their very ethnicity, to be outlawed in the only country they'd ever called home.
"Our great, great grandfathers went from Nepal to settle down in Bhutan a long time ago," said Rizal. "Later on people were fighting for democracy — human rights — because at the time the country was ruled by absolute monarchy," Rizal said. "That was why whoever participated in the rebellion — in the demonstrations, so to say — to get democracy in the country. Basically my family was a little bit involved, so they used the army and the police to burn down our house and so we became refugees."
With their citizenship revoked, they were transferred to United Nations-run refugee camps in Nepal amidst violence and intimidation.
Life in the camps
"When I was in the camp, you know, and we feel like we want to open a school, you know, for the children to learn ... sanitization. Because every single day, you know, small children were dying because of poor hygiene and poor nutrition," said Rizal.
Rizal opened a school in the refugee camp that he said helped over 2,000 students in its first year alone. Teaching children and adults the living skills they would need to survive in a new environment became Rizal's mission.
"After working for a couple years, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees gave me a scholarship to go down to India to finish my high school education," said Rizal. "In Bhutan, high school only goes up to 10th grade. So I still had to do 11th and 12th, and then I came back to Nepal and I got the opportunity to come to the United States."
Rizal earned degrees in teaching and nursing. He worked as a nurse and health aide in Colorado and Washington before landing in Akron, where over 5,000 other Lhotshampa refugees have settled.
"Bhutan being an agricultural country, all the people are based in agriculture," Rizal said of the Lhtoshampa population in Akron. This unique community with a farming culture has experienced a challenging transition from life on the farm to life in the refugee camp to life in the city.
Binod Paudel is a filmmaker from Nepal, based in North Carolina. He's currently working on a feature film titled "Rubber City," which he filmed in Akron, about the Lhotshampa community. Rizal and Crain both appear in the film and helped with Paudel's stay in Akron.
"The people who used to grow their own food at home in Bhutan, once they came here, the United States has so many systems, very organized systems," said Paudel. "And the people who lived in Bhutan, they didn't have to attach with any boundaries, any liabilities. They had their own field, their own time to work. They don't need to think about rent. So it was like a golden cage for them."
"Those people were very frustrated by the situation," said Paudel of these subsistence farmers grappling with Western bureaucracy for the first time. "Even though they lived below the poverty line (in Bhutan), there was a kind of freedom for them. But here, it's like, they don't know anything."
Shanti Farms begins
Tom Crain is the opposite of Rizal in his demeanor and appearance. Laid back and jovial, Crain is Rizal’s partner in Shanti Farms. Crain helped him navigate issues like land-use zoning, a concept that was new to Rizal.
"We decided to open a small community farm so that we can teach our people, you know, how to do the right agriculture, because there are a lot of rules and regulations in United States, you know, like zoning, where they have to zone for agriculture, for residential or commercial," said Rizal.
Zoning was just one of the concepts he and other Lhotshampa had no experience with, as they were subsistence farmers in Bhutan and refugees without land of their own in Nepal.
Crain is a former school director in the Minneapolis area and an agricultural trade writer. He worked on a similar urban farming program for Somali and Hmong immigrants in Minnesota, and upon arriving in Akron, discovered the same need in the immigrant population.
"They had just got there," said Crain. "And it was the exactly the same thing. They were all farmers with agricultural backgrounds."
Crain helped them get their own plots of land and navigate some of the farming hurdles that didn't exist in their home countries.
"Even the soil testing," said Rizal. "Because a lot of places, when they do the urban farm, you know, there are demolished houses, there are some buildings demolished, and then there are a lot of chemicals mixed in the soil. And that is poisonous. So, basically, our goal and motive is to teach them how to use the soil and what is the right place to do the agriculture."
Since its inception in late 2016, Shanti Farms has expanded from helping ten families with their small farm plots to developing community farms on swaths of land donated by the Akron Public Schools and the Akron Zoo.
Shanti Farms’ main garden is the "High Tunnel," which sits on Tallmadge Avenue and is a large hoop house. They also have the "International Peace Garden" and the "North High Garden." They're also working on establishing new farm on land donated by the Akron Zoo, which sits across the street from the I Promise Village. That project, from The Lebron James Family Foundation, provides housing for students of the I Promise School and their families.
"They need outdoor recreation opportunities for the families," said Crain. "So we're really excited about that."
In addition to providing space and learning opportunities for Lhotshampa farmers, Shanti Farms' programs also allow communities to meet up and share their unique agricultural heritage.
The "International Peace Garden" grows plants from different cultures, like African peanuts and greens, and a hot chili pepper from Nepal called dalle khursani. They also hold a harvest festival with a contest to see who can eat more of the spicy little delicacies the fastest, without water.
"One lady from Cleveland stood first because she was able to eat seven dalle khursani in one minute," said Rizal.
The food grown on these farms is sold at farmer's markets and shared throughout the community.
In addition to the farms, Rizal and Crain oversee Shanti Farms' other community projects, such as Yard Corps and Stars. Stars is a cultural dance program that gives teens in the immigrant community opportunities to hone and perform their art. Yard Corps gives them a chance to earn money and gain skills through working on landscaping projects.
That's how a group of Congolese teenagers found themselves building up and tearing down urban farms on cold weekend afternoons. The group of teens comprise both a Yard Corps team and a Stars dance troupe called "The Black Beanz."
"The Black Beanz" are refugees originally from Congo who spent time in camps in Tanzania and Uganda before resettlement in Akron. Their dance troupe has a practice space and is booking gigs with help from Shanti Farms. And they'll perform at halftime of a Cleveland Cavaliers game in February. Their refugee experience has similarities to that of the Lhotshampa, but is unique.
"Shanti Farm is a blessing for us, you know, that unites all together, because when we have this, then we have a connection with all the, like, different communities, like Congolians (Congolese) and Burmese and then as well as the Nepali community, you know," said Rizal. "So everybody seems to be rooted with agriculture, you know. So that is how we are able to unite these people together, you know, in the simplest form and then work together."