PORTLAND — African refugees have started farm businesses near Portland in recent years that are growing in popularity and profit.
Much of their success, they say, can be traced to the man who trained them behind-the-scenes: Eca-Etabo Wasongolo.
Wasongolo is community organizer at Village Gardens, a nonprofit that promotes economic and food resilience. Each year, Wasongolo trains about 15 refugees how to grow and market food. Refugees start by selling produce at Village Market, a small grocery store. A few have gone on to start farm businesses, and more are considering it.
“I want people to discover they have the potential to make something, that they have a certain power inside them,” said Wasongolo.
Wasongolo’s many assets equip him for this work — university training in agriculture, science and development, and his ability to speak Swahili, Kibembe, Nyanja, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, French and English.
His greatest asset, some say, is his own story — because once, Wasongolo was a refugee, too.
It was 1996. Civil war had erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Wasongolo’s family lived. The bloody genocide was nicknamed “Africa’s First World War.”
Ethnic strife before and during the war propelled a massive refugee influx as 4.5 million people from Burundi and Rwanda fled to the Congo.
Wasongolo, who at the time helped Burundian and Rwandan refugees, was seen as a traitor for this work and became a wanted man. Rebels searched for him and killed four relatives, including two brothers.
“It’s hard to talk about,” said Wasongolo.
His voice broke.
As he, his wife Salome and their children fled, the streets were filled with bodies. They escaped from the Congo aided by a priest and nun and fled to nearby Zambia.
Prior to the conflicts, Wasongolo had studied social organizing and agriculture at the Higher Institute of Rural Development and had subsequently taught communities how to improve their profits through farming and entrepreneurship. He had also worked for Caritas International, a Catholic relief organization, and helped refugees.
Himself a refugee, Wasongolo continued teaching others to make a profit through farming and craftsmanship.
Nearly eight years passed. Wasongolo’s family grew, living in camps, before their request for U.S. asylum was granted. The family settled in Portland.
Around 2008, he became involved with Janus Youth, parent organization of Village Gardens, and in 2010, he became a community organizer.
Wasongolo said he’s particularly proud of one refugee couple he trained — Prosper Hezumuryanao and Rosata Niyonzima, from Burundi.
Under Wasongolo’s guidance, the couple learned to navigate American culture, grew a garden plot, and in 2012, started their own organic farm on Sauvie Island. This they named Happiness Family Farm, after their daughter, Happiness.
Their business is growing, and they have sold produce through farmers markets, grocery delivery services, a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, and in local restaurants.
“You can’t imagine. From such suffering to such opportunity. They’re doing great,” said Wasongolo.
This month, Wasongolo plans to meet with other refugees who are interested in full-time farming.