Maize garden in Mildura helps Burundian refugees connect to new home and each other

Maize garden in Mildura helps Burundian refugees connect to new home and each other

Maize garden in Mildura helps Burundian refugees connect to new home and each other

Updated 9 February 2018, 7:10 AEDT

A maize crop growing in a community garden helps African refugees feel a sense of belonging in their new home in north-western Victoria.

On the outskirts of Mildura in north-western Victoria, a small plantation notable for its tall fields of African maize grows.

Tending the corn crop are refugees from Burundi, many of whom were farmers in their home country.

The public garden, a gesture of friendship and welcome from Sunraysia non-government community groups, was donated more than a year ago to people who had fled the civil war that has raged, almost unabated, in the East African republic since its independence in 1962.

To say the project has been a success would be an understatement.

"This year has been great because we had a lot of support," Twitezimbere Burundian Community leader Joel Sindayigaya said.

"Last year was good too, but we can see now that every year is an improvement."

Mildura's Burundian Community Farm became a reality in 2016 when the combined efforts of Sunraysia Local Food Future, Food Next Door, and the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council procured 0.4 hectare of land to be managed as a traditional Burundian food garden.

Irrigation was installed and a farm management plan devised, all dependant on Mildura's 100-strong Burundi population and volunteers.

The project is succeeding in measurable ways and in ways that cannot be calculated.

"Last year we harvested 300 kilograms of corn, and we expect more this year because it was a better year," Mr Sindayigaya said.

"This project has a really big impact on our community. It helps us to have a connection.

"We can meet here at the farm and work together and connect that way. This is our connection to this land and the people."

Farm improves wellbeing

Food Next Door vice president Sevilla Furness-Holland has been working with the Burundians since the beginning, and agreed the produce was almost secondary to the emotional benefits the garden provided.

"It became apparent to us that if we could only get some land for the Burundians, who have amazing farming skills, they would just be so much more satisfied being in Australia," she said.

"And that's really come across from what the Burundians have told us — that they have improved wellbeing, feel a sense of belonging in the community, and that it's really given them a purpose to stay."

For Mr Sindayigaya, who is used to farming large tracts of land in the equatorial climate of Burundi, managing a small parcel in Victoria's north-west has been challenging.

"This is a huge difference, because over here in Australia we have to connect to the irrigation and can use the water," he said

"Back home we relied on the rain, so we had to plant at the right time in the right season."

He said the future for the farm was encouraging.

There is talk of machines that will help them to package maize flour and sell it nationally, and as news of the project spreads, the local goodwill is overflowing.

"We've had another four acres donated to us, but we were not able to farm that land due to hot weather," Mr Sindayigaya said.

"We didn't have enough water for the plantation, so we have put that on hold until perhaps next year.

"We are very happy because, as you can see, there are lots of people who have come to see what we have done, what we have achieved.

"You can see the harvest," he said, his arms outstretched toward the field behind him.

"There is no reason not to be happy."

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