by Marti Sarbit
Photos by Asha Nelson
Last week, a group of staff and volunteers from Fireweed Food Co-op went out to visit the Healing Farm in St. Francois Xavier, MB: a communal farming project set up and operated by a group of Yazidi refugees from Iraq.
Marti Sarbit is our Food Hub Assistant Coordinator and she wrote the following piece about the project. Marti is a longtime contributor to the Winnipeg music scene through her projects, Imaginary Cities and Lanikai, and has been infusing Fireweed with her many creative talents!
Farming has always been a way of life for the majority of those in Winnipeg’s Iraqi Yazidi refugee community. Long before they were refugees-- before they were held captive by ISIS and witness to what the UN officially defines as a genocide-- they were expert farmers making a living off of the land. Iraq, being the bountiful agricultural country that it is, provided a great landscape for its citizens to develop their farming skills. A wide variety of vegetables and fruits are grown and cultivated there all year round, providing a consistent source of sustenance for its families. This was the Yazidi way of life before dreadful conditions forced them to flee their homes to seek refuge in new places.
And thanks to a group called Operation Ezra, Winnipeg became one of those places. Operation Ezra is a coalition of Jewish and other faith groups and charities which help sponsor and support Yazidi refugees and was launched in Winnipeg in March 2015 with two objectives: to increase general awareness about the plight of the Yazidi people in the Middle East, and to raise $35,000 for the sponsorship of a Yazidi refugee family to Winnipeg. Over the ensuing years, more and more Yazidi families have taken refuge in Winnipeg, generating a need for growth and expansion within Operation Ezra’s organization.
A large percentage of those who escaped Iraq and arrived in Winnipeg are single women who lost husbands at the hands of ISIS, many of them young and with multiple children to care for. Now they seek refuge in a country where many of them don’t know the languages and are starting fresh with no income or sense of belonging. What they do have, however, is farming expertise.
And thus, the Healing Farm was envisioned. Currently working with close to 10 acres in St. Francois Xavier, Manitoba, the Yazidi community -- predominantly women -- have participated in, organized and planned the operations of this communal farm that provides subsistence for more than 30 Yazidi families in Winnipeg.
A group of us from Fireweed went out to visit the Healing Farm last week, in hopes of learning more about the communal farming project. Michel Aziza, the Operation Ezra Committee Chair and Nafiya Naso, a Yazidi resettlement coordinator showed us around.
“Everyday, typically, we have 10 to 20 women working here.” says Michel. “The Yazidi community, all of these [people] are volunteers. I suspect we’ll be doing more of this next year, tilling more land...They come out here in the morning and everybody gets to work. Usually everybody brings food and it really brings them together.”
The Healing Farm-- named for the way that working the land has helped the farmers begin to heal from their trauma-- was started in a rather modest way, explains Nafiya Naso. “The potato farm started in 2018. A half acre of land was donated by someone who sits on the Operation Ezra committee. People were really interested and so we did a half acre land of potatoes and beets and we were really successful and there was a lot of media coverage,” she told us. “That’s how Bo Wohlers, owner of Shelmerdine Garden Centre learned about the project. He reached out, said he had a bunch of land that was not being used and so he provided all the seeds, the land, the equipment and the Yazidi families provided the labour and this is how we came about.” Wohlers and his wife Gloria became involved in helping Yazidi refugees through Operation Ezra in 2019, after learning about their desire to find land fairly close to Winnipeg on which they could grow crops, including vegetables and herbs used in traditional recipes. He initially provided 7 acres, but that number soon increased.
Though they’ve slowly begun selling their produce at markets and to smaller scale restaurants (like the Tallest Poppy in Winnipeg’s West Broadway neighbourhood), the priority is making sure the families can go home with food for themselves first. “The more than 30 Yazidi families tend to the donated land all season, then harvest the fruits of their labour. That means they have healthy food to take home, a huge help when they're living with little,” says Aziza. “You come to work, you pack it up and you take it home.”
Since its inception, the farm has expanded its yield to include cabbage, squash, cucumbers, beans, Swiss chard, eggplants, onions, garlic, okra, melons and, of course, continuing on in the production of potatoes and beets. As this farm increases in size and community members, so will their plans for production and-- ideally-- it will become a way to generate more income for the farmers while maintaining a space for purposeful and restorative communal gathering.
“When we started this last year, they were different human beings out here. It was very therapeutic for them and so we’ve been calling it a Healing Farm since then.” says Naso. “They come out here and they work the fields, they know what they’re doing, they don’t need someone to translate for them, they don’t need someone to tell them how to do it or where to do it, when to do it. They know exactly what needs to be done.”
The Healing Farm is located on a beautiful riverside plot in St. Francois Xavier, near Winnipeg. You can enjoy some of the fruits of the Healing Farm by dining at the Tallest Poppy who has started purchasing directly from the farmers, and we hope that soon, some of the products from the Healing Farm will be available through Fireweed Food Hub as well: as we move toward our vision of a sustainable, resilient and just regional food system, it is clear that supporting projects like the Healing Farm is absolutely key. Learn more about the project by visiting the Operation Ezra website and Facebook page (links below).