BY MARY POLS
His gift of language helps to build farms, starting with New Roots in Lewiston, a new cooperative owned by Somali immigrants
It takes a lot brainstorming, negotiating and planning to start any new farming venture. But factor in that the farmers are from another land, speak English as a second language (and even then, haltingly) and their financial backers and guides include multiple agencies, and complexities intensify.
That’s the case at New Roots Cooperative Farm, just formed by four Somali-Bantu immigrants who will start planting on 30 acres of fallow dairy land in Lewiston next spring. They likely couldn’t have done it without Hussein Muktar, who has served as translator throughout the process.
We called Muktar, a farmer himself, to ask how he found himself being the voice of his community, the responsibility entailed in translating and his own journey from Somalia to Maine. And we asked what presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent inflammatory words directed at Maine’s immigrants meant to him.
OLD ROOTS: His parents farmed in Somalia, growing crops year-round, from eggplants and zucchini to mangoes and lemons. His job as a boy was to guard the crops. “I watched for the birds. And the monkeys.” The family was driven from their home by civil war that erupted in 1992.
“There was no control. People come to your house and kill you or beat you and take whatever you have,” he said. “You have no power.” The violence had no rhyme or reason. “Sometimes they might say, ‘Oh, one of your tribe killed somebody in our tribe.’ ” Eventually, as violence closed in, he and his family set out walking toward the potential refuge of Kenya. He can’t remember whether he was 6 or 8.
THE LONG WALK: On the second day of a month-long walk, the Muktar family was robbed of the food and water they’d brought with them. “Then you know, people started eating the leaves on the trees,” he said. “Digging the roots to suck the water from the roots.” Muktar and his parents were lucky; they found people willing to give them food and water along the way, and they stayed strong enough to make it across the border.
CAMP LIFE: They lived in two different camps in Kenya over the course of a decade – this is where Muktar learned to speak English – before being issued papers to come to America. In the beginning, they lived in Atlanta, and while they were grateful to be in America, this place felt all wrong for the family. Overwhelming, from taking public transit to finding jobs. “It was life in a big city.” Farming was out of the question.
NORTHWARD: Muktar struck out on his own for about 18 months, moving to Burlington, Vermont, where friends had settled. He learned to drive. His eyes were opened to the possibility of a more satisfying, rural life in America. When his family moved to Maine, his mother immediately began looking for farmland, he said, and soon he decided to join them.
In 2006, he began working part time as a translator for Coastal Enterprises as the Somali immigrant community settled into Lewiston and began farming programs at places like the Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon. That evolved into a job with Cultivating Community, which helps facilitate programs for these displaced farmers. “I wear multiple hats,” Muktar said.
MAMA MIA: One of the four co-owners of New Roots is Muktar’s mother. “She is strong and has a lot of ideas about how we can come together as a community instead of as individuals.” Sharing costs for farm infrastructure is a key component of the New Roots philosophy; what they might struggle with individually will be easier together. “To do everything by yourself is to feel frustrated.”
NEW ROOTS: This new farm was purchased by Maine Farmland Trust in January, with a plan to transition ownership to the Somali immigrants eventually. These shared 30 acres, Muktar said, offer a chance to intensify that feeling of community he already experiences in Lewiston. He drives from one side of the small city to another, seeing friends all along his route. New Roots is an opportunity to feel united. The plan is to put up buildings on the farm – there is no real infrastructure there now – and they’ll have a farm stand there as well. “This will be bringing together the family and friends to feel like a home.”
For now, Muktar himself will continue to farm at Packard-Littlefield, on the acre he shares with his wife, but it is his hope that he will join the New Roots cooperative.
THE WEIGHT OF WORDS: During our conversation, Muktar paused several times to answer questions from colleagues, moving easily between English and his own Somali dialect, Maay, and the demands on him were obvious. As he was learning English in school in Kenya, he never planned to become a translator. But Muktar is uniquely qualified. He knows farming, he knows these farmers, and what their hopes, dreams and needs are. “If something goes wrong, I know how to fix it.”
This is not an easy task. “You are holding that accountability or responsibility,” he said. “A lot of people are counting on you.” And he knows that translation is imperfect, that things could be lost. “When you are changing one person’s language into another, it is not going to be the same.”
FUTURE FARMERS OF AMERICA? Muktar and his wife have seven children; the youngest is 8 months old, the eldest is 9. They too, are bilingual, speaking their parents’ mother tongue at home and English at school. “The easy language for them is English.” He’s learning from them, filling in those remaining gaps in his own English, including the colloquial American expressions that come so easily to them. “There is a lot things that I don’t know that they know.” Will they be farmers? Maybe, he says, but for now it is soon to tell.
DREAM LANGUAGES: After all these years of going back and forth between languages and dialects, what language does he dream in? “Not in English,” Muktar said, laughing. “I don’t think it will happen.”
TRUMP THAT: When Donald Trump visited Portland earlier this summer, he made a point of stirring up fear of Maine’s immigrant population, particularly the Somali. Muktar says he himself is not political. “I sometimes listen on the radio.” But hearing about Trump’s speech, which led to a rally the next day in support of Somali immigrants, was unavoidable. Muktar chose to ignore the hurtful words. “Because that is what a crazy person is saying.” Trump can keep talking, Muktar said, but, “I’m thinking and I’m hoping he will not be our president.”