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Refugees find comfort in an alley garden in Highlandtown

As a boy, Abdi Hassen helped his father nurture and harvest maize, wheat and tropical fruits — until the early 1990s, when his father vanished.

"He was disappeared because of his political opinion. I don't know if he is alive or not now," said Hassen, a refugee from Ethiopia, as he stood among lush garden beds in a Highlandtown alley.

Hassen, 31, spends much of his days in the alley, taking copious notes on the plants' progress and the pests that appear on their leaves. The garden is part of the International Rescue Committee's New Roots program, which aims to help refugees carry on the agricultural traditions of their homelands. The group also hopes that gardening will help refugees mix with locals.

"I want to be a farmer in the U.S. also, because most of my family are farmers," Hassen said on a recent weekday morning.

He arrived in Baltimore on May 29 with his wife, Soumeya Ibrahim, 29, and their son, Zakir Awell, who is almost 3. Shortly afterward, Hassen became the primary custodian of the half-dozen garden beds behind the IRC's Baltimore Orientation Center on Eastern Avenue.

Refugees from around the world, including Iraq, Bhutan and El Salvador, pitch in.

It is the first season for the Baltimore garden. Eight other U.S. cities also have gardens, and the IRC, a refugee resettlement and aid organization, this week began a campaign to raise funds to expand the program.

The local garden's success can be attributed largely to the dedication of Hassen and Ibrahim, said Luke Carneal, a college senior from Woodbine who interned this summer with IRC and became close with the family.

"They were very committed from the get-go. They brought with them tons of knowledge about agriculture," Carneal said.

Hassen and his wife grew up on farms near the city of Dire Dawa, about 300 miles east of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

"Our farm is very big — almost 400 kilometers square," Hassen said.

Though he has a bachelor's degree in irrigation engineering from an Ethiopian university, Hassen now makes sandwiches 35 hours a week at a local Subway.

"It is hard to imagine a farmer who had land for as far as the eye can see to come to Baltimore and work in a Subway restaurant," said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC's Baltimore branch.

But the refugees are tenacious, he said.

"If there is one word to describe our clients it is resilience," Chandrasekar said. "They have gone through an untold number of changes. … Throughout that they've had to reinvent themselves."

Hassen said Baltimore was a welcome change from the traumas of his life in Ethiopia.

"My mom, she is in prison," he said, adding that his elder brother is, too.

The jailings stem from Hassen's father's fleeting association with the Oromo Liberation Front, Hassen said. The OLF is a decades-old ethnic nationalist group that has been outlawed by the Ethiopian government, according to the U.S. Department of State.

In spite of his family's persecution, Hassen was able to earn his degree. He used his knowledge to help provide food and water to hundreds of people in the refugee camp he fled to in 2001.

"It's harsh. It's very bad. Still people are suffering there," Hassen said of the Ali Addeh refugee camp in Djibouti, where he met and married Ibrahim and where their son was born.

Ali Addeh has been plagued by a lack of water and rations. Hassen began gathering seeds from nongovernmental organizations and he and his wife, both experienced farmers, planted them around their tent.

For years they walked about three miles each way to fetch water, carrying it back to their garden on their shoulders, Hassen said. Then, in 2006, he began digging.

"I dig four times before I could get water," Hassen said. Finally, his well filled when he hit a depth of about 16 feet, he said.

With a closer water source, his garden grew to nearly 1,000 square feet. Other refugees began taking seeds from his crops and planting their own plots, Hassen said.

Today he is working to enlarge the IRC garden so more refugees can take part.

Chandrasekar said the nonprofit would like to double its gardening space in the alley next summer. IRC staffers also have been working to identify other community gardens where the refugees could work, he said.

The nonprofit has talked with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. about using some of the company's land in the Frankford neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore, where many refugees live, for a larger gardening space, Chandrasekar said.

"We look at the garden also as a community integration tool," he said.

Hassen is hopeful that the New Roots garden will expand, that his family will someday own its own plot and that he will find a job in the agricultural field.

But for now he is happy to help in the Highlandtown alley.

"I feel that I am at home," he said.

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

twitter.com/stevekilar

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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