Market garden offers Yazidi families who have resettled in Winnipeg an opportunity to plant and harvest their own crops
Onions, potatoes, garlic, pumpkins, squash, beans, peas, carrots and other vegetables were planted in mid-May on a nine-acre plot of land next to the Assiniboine River in St. Francois Xavier, Man.
It marks the start of the third growing season at the Healing Farm Project.
The Healing Farm Project’s mandate is providing food security for Yazidi newcomer families in Winnipeg, but it’s become much more. During the past three years, members of about 54 government-sponsored and 11 privately sponsored Yazidi families have been given the opportunity to plant and harvest vegetables and herbs as many did in their homeland of Iraq. Parents are able to show their children how to cultivate food crops that can be used in traditional recipes.
“That’s how they did things at home,” Nafiya Naso, resettlement co-ordinator with Winnipeg’s Jewish Child and Family Service, said. “This field and farming is what they know; what they loved.”
The Jewish Federation oversees Operation Ezra, a program that has helped Yazidi refugee families settle in Winnipeg since 2015.
Yazidis are one of the oldest religions and ethnic minorities in the world and have been persecuted for more than 700 years. Beginning in 2014, Yazidis living in Iraq’s Mosul region were targeted by State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with more than 5,000 people killed and 50,000 displaced.
A Jewish-led coalition of multi-faith organizations in Winnipeg founded Operation Ezra to increase awareness of the Yazidis’ plight, which the United Nations has declared a genocide, and to raise money to bring Yazidi families to the city. Some of the newcomer families are headed by women whose husbands have been killed.
One of the faith groups involved is Charleswood United Church. Minister Michael Wilson describes the Healing Farm Project as a tremendous success, crediting congregation member Bo Wohlers with being instrumental in establishing the market garden.
Wohlers, co-owner of Shelmerdine Garden Centre in Headingley, Man., was using the riverside land for a tree nursery until 2011 when a severe flood destroyed nearly all his tree stock.
Wohlers said in 2018 he read an article about Yazidi families growing potatoes needed for food on donated land near Portage la Prairie. Included in the article was a wish made by Operation Ezra committee chair Michel Aziz to find land closer to Winnipeg that could be used for a market garden the next year. Wohlers and his wife, Gloria, decided to offer their former tree nursery as a garden location.
Since that time, the Healing Farm Project has become Wohlers’ passion. He provides seedlings and nurtures them in his greenhouse space until they can be planted in the garden, as well as ensures that there is working equipment and proper irrigation at the garden site.
Local Hutterite colonies have also donated seed potatoes and onions. Thirty-nine types of vegetables and herbs are being planted this year.
The Yazidis provide most of the labour for planting, weeding and harvesting.
In 2019, when COVID-19 wasn’t a factor, families would travel about 40 kilometres from Winnipeg to the Healing Farm Project and bring food along for group meals. Children would play together while their parents worked and then everyone would share a meal.
Wohlers said the pandemic has reduced the number of people who can work together in the garden, but Naso and other Operation Ezra staff are efficient in organizing volunteers when work is to be done. Now that the garden is entering its third season, regular volunteers are experienced.
“We’re kind of in a nice pattern. People can organize themselves,” he said.
After growing more than enough produce to feed the Yazidi families last year, the excess was sold at farmers markets in the Charleswood United Church and Shelmerdine Garden Centre’s parking lots. Wilson said revenue generated by these sales is being reinvested in the seeds, seedlings and equipment needed for this year’s crop. Any produce that wasn’t sold was donated to Winnipeg food banks.
“It (the Healing Garden Project) has become more self-sustaining,” Wilson said, adding that having the chance to gain this type of business experience benefits Yazidi youth.