By Jennifer Justus, Culinary Community Liason
The farmers of Growing Together gathered under a pavillion near their farm plots and snipped the dried scapes off garlic bulbs and trimmed the roots they had planted the previous fall. They talked amongst themselves in their native Nepali as cicadas sang from the trees. And occasionally, a jet from the nearby Nashville airport buzzed their acre teeming with Nepali mustard greens, tomatoes, zinnias and dancing with butterflies and bees.
There’s always work to do as farmers, so cleaning garlic had to happen during their weekly meeting. But when the group starts communicating—especially from Nepali to English and back again—that’s when Siddi Rimal’s job begins.
Siddi has worked as an interpreter between the Growing Together farmers and community gardeners who speak Nepali and the English-speaking staff of The Nashville Food Project for five years. He’s crucial to the programs' successes. His support to the programs came at the perfect time and he has remained committed though he’s not professionally trained as an interpreter and he has another job (like many of the farmers) as a technician on the paint line at Nissan.
And it’s not that the Bhutanese and Burmese farmers in the program need help in knowing how to grow things. They’ve got that part down. Many of them came here with decades of experience and fill their plots to the edges with crops and trellises for hanging gourd and long beans. But they do need help navigating the red tape of American systems and sales outlets.
For example, in their meeting they discussed harvesting schedules and plans for packing CSA boxes. Tallahassee May, Education Manager for Growing Together, also talked with the farmers about wholesale orders for restaurants and plans for the Saturday booth at the Richland Park Farmers’ Market.
Siddi must listen carefully and then accurately convey what’s being said even if there’s not a direct translation. It requires concentration and patience because every conversation takes four times as long -- Tally to Siddi, Siddi to farmers, farmers to Siddi and Siddi back to Tally.
But for Siddi, a man who spent half his life in a refugee camp, time is relative.
All the farmers in Growing Together came to the United States as refugees. In Siddi’s case, his family was evicted from Bhutan in 1992 during ethnic cleansing and complicated tangle of factors including religious, political, socioeconomic and geographical reasons (read a brief history of the Bhutanese refugee crisis here).
“Many people were killed and many people lost their homes, lost their property, land, cattle and all,” he says. “When we left, we had to leave our land, our home, cattle— everything. We had to run at nighttime.”
Siddi was 5 years old when his family fled.
“It was a violent moment,” he says. “As far as I know from history and people being a witness, we’re told that armies raped the women and killed some of the social activists. They sent some of them to prison and some were sent for no reasons and tortured there. Some people they kill —put in the sack and throw in the river. Lot of torture and things.”
At the refugee camp in Nepal, they received basic needs from organizations like the United Nations and Red Cross.
“But even though they help us, we had to spend a miserable life,” Siddi says. “We lived in a small hut, made of bamboo and like straw or plastic roof.”
The Nepali camps, which eventually swelled to about 100,000 people, had problems with malnourishment, illnesses, overcrowding.
“In the hut when the weather was very hot like this, it was very hard to live in there,” Siddi says. If there was heavy rainfall and storms, most of the rain goes into the house and floods. It was very hard to tell this story. Because we were in a very difficult situation. And not for a couple of years, it was 22 years.”
The refugees in Nepal often found jobs outside the camp with locals by working in their fields or cutting rice patties. Siddi, who was educated in the camp, worked as a trainer in camp where he met his wife. The couple started the process of applying to come to the United States when they were in their early 20s. It took them three years — repeated interviews, medical tests and background checks — before they were cleared.
“I came to Vegas the first time—Sept 25, 2012,” he says of his first placement in the United States at 26 years old. “There were a lot of people, and it was crowded. I was a little bit nervous there. I never had any experience with the airport, you know? We had to go to the train, so that was like...my mind was blown.”
After two days in Las Vegas, he made his way to Nashville where his wife’s family had already been resettled a couple years prior. Siddi’s father-in-law also later introduced him to The Nashville Food Project’s Wedegewood Urban Gardens, where Siddi began maintaining a plot as a community gardener. Then when the Growing Together program began for growers who take their produce to market, Siddi took on the role as interpreter.
“Obviously it is very helpful,” he says of the Growing Together program. “Every time I meet with people, even at the grocery store, I always talk about the program.”
Farmers share that it helps provide fresh food for their families in addition to supplemental income. They’re able to grow crops traditional to their backgrounds like komatsuna, bitter gourd, long beans and hot peppers. It’s also a way for farmers to feel more rooted here. And even though the elders might struggle to pick up the language or feel as useful here compared to their younger family members, farming gives them the opportunity to pass along the life-giving skill of tending to the earth and coaxing nourishing treasure from it—all in the company of their community. As one farmer told TNFP, “It helps me feel less alone.”
Granted, there are still challenges. For many of the farmers and gardeners, transportation often arises as a hurdle since many don’t have a driver’s license or access to a vehicle. Language barriers for some, especially when Siddi isn’t around, also pose problems.
But just as TNFP’s Tally and Sally Rausch have picked up Nepali words, the farmers too have learned English words like the names for vegetables— “onion,” “tomato.” They know “gift,” which they use while pressing a potato into the palm of a friend. They issue lots of “good mornings.”
As the meeting at the Growing Together farm neared its end, one of the farmers, Nar, finished working through her stack of garlic, so she threw her arms up in a “V.” She flashed a smile and shouted a word in Nepali. The others laughed. And then she pressed her palms together at her heart.
Some things, it turns out, don’t need translating after all.