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New lives sprout here

July 12, 2009 12:36 am

lo0712imani4a.jpg

Nizigiyimana Danifodi transfers a tomato seedling into the dirt of Munira Marlowe's Spotsylvania County garden. lo0712imani1.jpg

Burundian refugees Elasa Niyokwizigira (right) and Nzeyimana Jackson prepare soil for planting in a garden sponsored by a new nonprofit. lo0712imani3a.jpg

Nzeyimana Jackson carries tomato seedlings that are ready for planting. Jackson started growing the seedlings months earlier, using techniques he learned as a refugee who farmed for a living in Tanzania. lo0712imani2.jpg

Munira Marlowe (studying a bug with Nijimbere Rebecca) has started an agency to help refugees like Nijimbere, a Stafford High student.

BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE

Nzeyimana Jackson's two paychecks cover the rent on his Olde Forge townhouse.

But they don't put food on the table. Not literally, at least.

He's doing that with his own hands, and some help from a new local agency headed by a Spotsylvania County woman who sees helping refugees as her mission in life.

The Imani Multicultural Center opened for business in late May and aims to support area refugees in simple but long-lasting ways--such as creating a garden for a refugee wanting to get his hands dirty and grow his own food.

Jackson, a Burundian refugee, says he feels lucky to wash dishes and work for a local construction company. After all, he arrived in the Fredericksburg area last summer during a recession.

But he supported his family by farming as a refugee in Tanzania, and loves to grow vegetables. He has planted more than 1,000 tomato seedlings in newly tilled quarter-acre garden at the Spotsylvania County home of Munira Marlowe.

The garden is one of the first projects for Marlowe's new refugee aid agency, the Imani center.

The Kenya native first dreamed of the nonprofit while working as a resettlement director for the Arlington Diocese's Office of Refugee Resettlement. She took pride in finding jobs for nearly every refugee who came through her door in two years as director.

But Marlowe saw other, more complex needs. She wished for another group, with people to step in and help the refugees acclimate.

Marlowe left her job as resettlement director in 2008 to work with a counseling center on helping refugee teens emotionally. But that program ended in March.

Marlowe contemplated returning to the corporate world, where she worked before entering the realm of refugees.

Her heart wasn't in sales. So Marlowe, a Muslim who felt God was calling her to work with refugees, took a leap of faith.

MOUNTING OBSTACLES

On May 31, Marlowe kicked off Imani with a large gathering at a Dahlgren marina. Sitting on the edge of the Potomac River, she faced about 75 guests representing different organizations, nationalities and religions.

"But we all come together because we have a shared belief," Marlowe said. "That God says to us, 'If you love me, serve my people.'"

As Marlowe stood before her supporters, the odds seemed against her.

She had just lost her income. She had to hitch a ride to her own kickoff party--just days earlier, her vehicle broke down on Interstate 95.

As she ignored the signs of her minivan's impending demise, Marlowe desperately called contacts looking for a donated car--not for herself but for a newly arrived Afghani with a driver's license but no way to get a ride to work.

Her basement had just flooded, too. And she was months behind on her house payments.

The obstacles were stacking up. But so were the needs. Marlowe couldn't go to Wal-Mart without running into refugees asking for help with documents, school meetings, translations.

She couldn't stop by a house in Bragg Hill--the Fredericksburg neighborhood where many newcomers settle--without a refugee family flagging her down with a problem.

"To me, almost every day is a trial, because I could easily get another job and forget about the refugees," Marlowe said. "But I know this is the right thing. I know it's what God wants me to do, and that's why I do it."

BORROWED LAND

With a donated car, Marlowe picks up Jackson and a few other refugees at least twice a week. They work on the garden, teasing each other in English and Swahili.

Jackson and his parents fled their native Burundi when he was 4 years old. It was 1972, the start of a brutal civil war that would simmer and rage for the next three decades.

In the beginning, the Tanzanians were often generous to the refugees. Jackson and his family planted tomatoes, beans and cassava on borrowed land.

The vegetables supplemented their limited diet and income. And gave Jackson a passion and a skill.

Over time, more than 330,000 Burundians piled into neighboring Tanzania--eventually straining the country's resources and its goodwill to the point that the Tanzanian government last month ordered Burundians to return to their own county.

Jackson lived in Tanzania for more than 30 years before learning he would be resettled in America. Through the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, he and his wife and children arrived in Fredericksburg last summer.

He is "more than happy" to once again stick his hands into borrowed dirt in his new home.

On a recent afternoon, Jackson took out a measuring tape to make sure the tomatoes were spaced correctly.

"Oh, he's such a professional," his children teased, using a new English word.

Jackson's mahogany hands were caked with tan mud. His teenagers, however, requested gardening gloves. Their hands were blistering.

"They're so American," he complained, but his brown eyes lit up as he said it.

Jackson waited years for those children to become "so American."

REAPING REWARDS

While Jackson worked in the garden, Marlowe fixed dinner for the refugees, showing a teenage girl how to cook. Marlowe envisions the life-skills center one day boasting a kitchen where refugees can learn cooking and cleaning.

For now, everyone crams into Marlowe's kitchen to eat at least one evening each week.

Into the evening, people stopped by Marlowe's house: coaches giving her sons a ride home from practice; social workers dropping off her foster children.

Neighbors driving home waved to the refugee farmers. Marlowe said friends, neighbors and total strangers have donated gardening supplies.

"To me, I am the luckiest, that God is allowing me to serve other people," Marlowe said. "Am I making six figures? Well, yeah, I am--just in a different way."

imanimulticulturalcenter.org

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
Email: aumble@freelancestar.com




Munira Marlowe has big dreams for her fledgling nonprofit. She'd love to expand her garden, sponsor refugees for job training, have classes in American culture and English for speakers of other languages, host multicultural parties and offer job-search help.

For now the new nonprofit has a long list of needs, including:

15-passenger van

Computers

Drywall

Paint

Volunteers who can provide transportation and help with renovation and teaching.

For details, e-mail munira@imanimulticulturalcenter.org or call 540/308-3730.

The refugees in Fredericksburg have been determined by the U.S. government to face persecution in their home countries on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. They are allowed to live in the United States indefinitely to protect them. Refugees get their status before coming to America, while asylum seekers obtain their status after arrival. Refugees may eventually get green cards.




Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.