IOWA CITY — When Ayman Sharif first moved to the United States from Sudan in 2013, he found integrating into his new home difficult. Everything was different, from the language he heard around him to the food he found at the grocery store.
Then he signed up for a community garden plot at Iowa City’s Wetherby Park — and as he dug dirt, planted seeds and grew produce alongside his neighbors, his sense of culture shock eased.
“At the beginning I found it very difficult to assimilate, to get used to so many different things,” he said. “But one could feel the connection when gardening next to someone, when you’re watering the plants together, sharing the yield together, talking.”
Now, he wants to help others build those connections. He and a group of other new Iowans are working together to start the Iowa Valley Global Food Project, a community farming project that will kick off this spring.
Participants come from a coalition of Eastern Iowa nonprofits and community groups, including immigrants from Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexico and other countries, who are working alongside other organic and local food advocates. They are leasing 3.7 acres for $1 a year at the Johnson County Poor Farm.
The county used the Poor Farm from 1855 until as late as the 1970s to provide care for the mentally ill and others. In 2015, the county decided to revive the farm as a place to provide local and organic food to the community. The nonprofit Grow: Johnson County has operated there for one season already, and the Iowa Valley Global Food Project will be located next to Grow: Johnson County’s two acres.
A member of the James Gang, an Iowa City nonprofit community-building organization, the Iowa Valley Global Food Project is a volunteer-run and is currently seeking funding through grants and fundraising efforts. The first of those, a performance of “VANG: A Drama About Recent Immigrant Farmers” by Iowa poet laureate Mary Swander, will be Sunday at the Old Capitol Building in Iowa City. Swander wrote the play based on interviews with Hmong, Mexican, Sudanese and Dutch immigrants who moved to Iowa.
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The play will be the first official event for the project, which will start this growing season with limited production and soil improvement efforts, with plans to expand participation in the second year. Project coordinators will provide technical assistance, training and support to community members who will garden on individual plots. The county stipulates no profit can be made from the food grown on the farm, but families will be able to grow food for themselves and their communities. Produce also will be used for meals at community events, celebrations and fundraisers.
Those meals, Sharif said, hopefully will bring people together.
“Interconnectedness is so important. We want to bring new Iowans together with people who have been here. And there is nothing better than food for connecting people. Food is universal,” he said.
Sharif is the project’s president. He is studying geography and sustainability at the University of Iowa, and he said the idea came to him when he was part of the Climate Narrative Project, which seeks to give students the tools to address climate change in unique ways.
“I have great concerns about the environment, sustainability, the food system itself,” he said. “This is something we need to educate our kids about. I don’t think I’m looking at this solely from the perspective of an immigrant. I’m looking at it from the perspective of an Iowan society member.”
The project also is a chance to grown and share plants common in Sudanese cooking that local community members miss or have trouble finding, things like sesame, purslane and hibiscus.
Shanti Sellz, Johnson County local foods planning specialist who works with the groups at the Poor Farm, said hibiscus also is used in Mexican cooking — it can be a conversation starting, a point of bonding for different groups, just as the experience of gardening itself can.
And that is the Iowa Valley Global Food Project’s primary goal.
“It is not a project that is just aiming to feed people, it is a project aiming to empower people and connect people,” Sharif said.
Project treasurer Mahmood Eltyeb agreed.
“We’re talking about integration,” he said. “For some people, it’s just a cultural barrier — they don’t know what they can do to participate in the community.”
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Eltyeb came to the United States in 1998 from Sudan through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, which gives a limited number of visas each year to people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. He has lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Virginia and moved to Iowa to attend Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, and now is a substitute teacher at the Iowa City school district. He said he choose Iowa City as a landing place in part for its diversity and as a good place for his two daughters.
“Coming here was a dream to have a better education, a better life generally,” he said.
He and Sharif said President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel to the United States by people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Sudan, hasn’t changed their view of life in America, though it does cause worries. Though he is a permanent legal resident and should be exempted from the ban, Sharif still worries he would face trouble re-entering the United States if he went back to Sudan visit family there. And as long as the ban is in place, his parents cannot visit him and his children here.
But he sees people protesting against the ban, and that, he and Eltyeb both said, illustrates the true spirit of America to them.
“Of course people are concerned about what’s going on,” he said. “But the United States is a great country. People fight back for their rights, for the way they think it can be. It’s not something you can do anywhere else ... This is what makes America great.”
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