Carol Waterman is no stranger to farming. Waterman's Farm Market, the family-owned and -operated business that she started with husband Bruce in 1978, is situated on 50 acres of land that has belonged to the family for over 100 years. Past Waterman generations have worked this same land: Bruce's grandparents maintained several greenhouses on the property, and his parents raised produce here to sell at nearby farmers markets.
A nearby interstate ramp creates an ironic backdrop to the farm's budding fields and farm equipment. Waterman shakes her head at the sight and says over the drone of not-so-distant cars that one farm market's advertisement bears the reminder, "There's still country in this city!"
Producing and marketing crops is innate to the Waterman clan (Carol and Bruce's son runs another Indiana farm, Hanna Acres, with his wife). They share a passion with an unlikely demographic: the Karen people of Burma, a country sandwiched between China and India and governed by military dictatorship.
"That's just who [the Burmese] are: people who work the soil. Without that, they are totally lost," Waterman says.
Maria Figueroa knows this as well. She founded the Refugee Resource and Research Institute and has been working with agencies to help get refugees to work on various service activities.
"My background has always been in human rights," Figueroa says. "My approach has always been to grant refugees their rights that are set forth by UNHCR [the United Nations' refugee agency]."
Figueroa researched the background of the Karen when she began working with them four years ago.
"Basically, [the Karen] are born and raised as farmers. They come from the agricultural region of Burma," she says. "That is part of their definition of a human being: farming."
People of Karen and Chin heritages have been trying to start their own respective nations and have faced persecution in Burma for decades, leading to an influx of refugees into the United States. Particularly, Pike Township is home to nearly 1,200 Chin people seeking refuge.
Waterman was approached by Figueroa and, with help from the Mayor's Office, an idea was developed to help struggling refugees integrate themselves into America's culture and commerce, while maintaining their agrarian identity. Waterman's Farm Market is allowing Karen refugee farmers usage of its land to produce vegetables to sell on site and at other local farmers markets. Waterman's is supplying the land and the machinery; the Karen farmers are supplying the manual labor.
"[The Burmese refugees] have moved from an agricultural area to a city, and they are completely alienated from what they know," Figueroa says. "Strong alienation makes integration into a new culture very difficult."
Waterman's Web site states the ultimate goal in sharing its land with refugee farmers: "It is our hope that being reconnected with the earth will facilitate a rekindling of their identity as farmers and will enable them to earn greater independence in this country."
Figueroa hopes that by preserving part of their character, the Burmese's relocation into a new country will be smoother.
"My main objective is that they will be able to take back part of their identity, so they can be whole again [as people] and be able to move on [to life in a new country]," she says.
This is the first time Waterman's has allowed its land for such endeavors, and despite minor technological and communication glitches, Waterman has high hopes for the program's success.
"I hope to continue helping [the farmers] in future farming seasons. My long-term goal, although I'm not sure when it will be reached, is to see the farmers become independent businessmen and -women," Waterman says.
Figueroa is pleased to see a privately owned business helping refugees. "The Watermans just want to help out and participate in refugee rights," she says.
The crops to be grown range from vegetables typical of American cuisine to some that are more likely to be ingredients of an Asian diet. Indiana's climate is drastically varied from the land of Southwest Asia, limiting the amount of Asian dietary crops that could actually survive the American Midwest.
Twenty-five to 30 Burmese farmers will be working the land, some as young as middle school and some who already maintain full-time jobs. Despite concurrent commitments, Waterman says the farmers are enthusiastic workers.
"[The farmers] are anxious to work the land, they want to do this. They are really chomping at the bit. These people have been completely uprooted from everything they know, but now they have the opportunity to do something they know: farming," Waterman says. "Maria said that one of the refugees [that she works with] had never smiled until they started talking about farming. When I heard that, it made me cry."
However, Waterman's altruism and the farmers' enthusiasm do not make up for less than desirable farming conditions. The combination of recent heavy rains and rocky Indiana soil has been a major hindrance to getting crops in the ground. Currently, a leafy lettuce patch, traditionally a cool weather plant, is the only thing being grown by the refugees.
"[When Indiana's soil] gets wet, it just turns to clay. It's impossible to do any sort of work with the land until it is completely dry," Waterman says while avoiding a puddle.
Waterman admits that the project will slightly hinder the farm's profits. However, she waves her hand as if swatting a fly, shakes her head insistently and says, "But that doesn't matter. You know, it's just the thing to do. It's just the thing to do. We have this land, why not let them use it?"
In addition to allowing refugees to farm on location, Waterman's is using its land as a venue for an event to raise awareness about refugees in the community. The United Nations has declared June 20 World Refugee Day, and in honor of the day, Waterman's is hosting a two-day festival showcasing the cultures of refugee nations, such as Thailand, Iraq, Burma and different African countries.
"This is the first time a privately owned business has hosted a very public event, and to me, that's huge," Figueroa said.
Activities include musical and dance performances, storytelling, arts and crafts and hayrides across the farm.