Listening to Wandaka Musongera recall his family’s village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) gives you a small glimpse into the importance that growing food and community has for him.
“I remember just how it feels, how the weather was, how it smelled and even how it sounded,” Wandaka shares. “There was a big river, and that river had stones and every time you hear water hitting the stones it makes a sound, like music. And I remember we used to grow mangoes and oranges. And I remember my cousins, my grandparents and my uncles.”
We are talking to Wandaka from New Leaf Agriculture’s farm in Elgin, Texas where he is now the Assistant Farm Manager. New Leaf Agriculture is a nonprofit social enterprise of the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC) of Austin and trains refugee farm apprentices for paid agricultural work.
Wandaka’s passion for farming developed at a very young age. Although both his parents were teachers, Wandaka recalls a childhood centered around growing food. “My family lived in the countryside where everybody farms,” he shares. “When I was very young my mom would take me with her farming and I would just repeat what she did. And at the age of five or six, she gave me a small plot where I grew green onions and sweet potatoes.”
But set against this backdrop of a peaceful, happy childhood, a decades long war was closing in on the family’s village. In 2006, along with thousands of their neighbors, Wandaka’s family fled to neighboring Uganda, finding safety in Kampala, the country’s capital. He was just 10 years old at the time.
The family struggled in Uganda. Wandaka missed two years of school and at times, to help the family make ends meet, he was collecting and selling recycled bottles from the streets. But after seven years, the family found out they were resettling to America.
When the family arrived to Texas, Wandaka was still a teenager. He was excited and nervous but determined to make the best of his new opportunity. His English improved, he joined the soccer team and rediscovered his childhood passion.
When representatives from MRC visited Wandaka’s high school promoting a new community garden program he jumped right in.
“I hadn’t farmed for seven years, I was excited just to grow stuff,” Wandaka shares with a big smile. “They gave me a plot and I think I was the youngest of everyone who had a garden.” Soon, Wandaka also had his first job, he was managing MRC’s community garden program.
But Wandaka and MRC had aspirations beyond community gardens. When a large plot of land became available to pursue commercial scale farming, Wandaka once again jumped at the opportunity. He was managing the farm and crop planning – but just as importantly for Wandaka, the new opportunity gave him a chance to deepen his ties to the Austin community. He’s a familiar face at the local farmers market.
“I get to grow food and then I get to feed my community,” he says. “You're feeding people every week,” Wandaka continues. “They know they're getting food from you every week. I'm in a way, a part of their family, a part of their lives.”
Since we first met Wandaka, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted communities around the world, with more than five million cases confirmed globally. In late April, the first cases of the virus were confirmed in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.
New Leaf Agriculture is an essential food service in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic, and Wandaka is grateful that he can still play a role in providing food for the Austin community that welcomed him.
“Feeding my Austin community during this hard time fills my heart with joy,” says Wandaka. “They [customers] are always delighted to get food from us and this makes me feel that I am doing something good in my community. I'm happy to be in the position of impacting people.”
How can you help people like Wandaka?
USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency supports the full journey of refugees like Wandaka. Not only do our donors help refugees in their greatest time of need, but their support builds awareness for resettled refugees living in the U.S. Refugees like Wandaka have woven themselves into the fabric of American society and are making lasting contributions to their communities. With your help, more refugees will have the opportunity to build a peaceful life and give their family a bright future.