Portland Somalis grow skills, produce at Falmouth's River Point

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FALMOUTH — The garter snake had just reached the top of the five-gallon bucket after somehow slithering up the slippery plastic side when Bootz Sharrif, 16, picked it up and examined its tortuous body and gently tried to touch its forked tongue.

Mahad Warsame, 16, and Ilhan Hilowle, 18, both drew closer, fascinated by their first up-close encounter with a snake.

The teens are three of 10 low-income Somali youths from Portland who are part of a pilot training program in organic farm management through the Center for African Heritage. On Monday, they began their 12-week program, held at Falmouth’s River Point property, by clearing out years of trash and filth from a dilapidated barn and house that sit among the 41 acres of rich, former farmland. Accessed from the Gray Road Hannaford Supermarket parking lot by a footbridge over the train tracks, the property is bounded by the tracks and by the Piscataqua and Presumpscot Rivers.

During the summer, the teens will earn hourly wages from federal stimulus funds administered through Goodwill Workforce Solutions. Their work will include renovating the barn, growing organic produce on several acres of the property and raising poultry and goats. They will also spend two hours a day in the classroom, improving their basic reading, writing and math abilities and learning resume-writing and interviewing skills. The time behind the desk is designed to develop budgeting and planning necessary for farming and to increase their ability to secure jobs.

Though this program focuses on at-risk teens, teaching farming to low-income African immigrants and their families is not new to the center. For the past three years, it has sponsored an organic farming program at Pleasant Valley Acres in Cumberland to improve the families’ economic condition and give them a marketable skill.

The program, which honors and builds on the farming heritage about 70 percent of the Sudan, Somali and Caribbean families have in common, offers the families a way to stay connected culturally to each other, earn money from selling their produce and provides them with fresh vegetables for their own consumption, center consultant Paul Young said.

“We began working with parents and kids to strengthen their relationship,” Young said. “They were eager to become involved (with farming) again; as the project developed in Cumberland, it emphasized family integration – preserving families as well as imparting farm skills.”

With the Falmouth project, Goodwill plans to track and document skills learned and the impact on the teens’ lives.

“We will have weekly conferences with the families and officials involved,” Young said. “Above all, the program is for personal development and growth to give them job skills and to develop as human beings.”

The center first requested funding for the project via a bonus Community Block Development Grant from the city of Portland, but were denied an allocation. As a result, the center has asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate misuse of recovery dollars, Young said.

But he optimistically pointed to the positive outcome.

“Had we gotten the CBDG dollars we were asking for, we would not have been able to pursue the River Point property,” he said. “We think it can be very helpful in furthering the town’s objectives of sustainable management of that property; we also believe organic farming training programs can be replicated across the state so people can be put back to work.”

One of the few industries in Maine that are growing, organic farming is gaining in popularity as more people seek healthy, local food sources, he said.

Dawud Ummah, president of the Center for African Heritage, watched the youths work Monday. Though disappointed at Portland’s decision to decline the center’s funding request for a program designed to boost impoverished, at-risk teens, he praised Falmouth for its willingness and quick decision to help.  And he expressed hope that the pilot program would encourage other outlying areas to be receptive to similar community gardens that he said can raise a family’s income by at least 25 percent.

The teens worked steadily in the cool, misty air as they threw out filthy stuffed teddy bears, old refrigerators, faded letters, tattered clothing and a myriad of worn out items that were once a part of people’s lives.

Their reasons for joining the program were all the same.

“I couldn’t find work,” Hilowle said.

“I wanted a job so bad – it’s quite difficult to find a job,” Sharrif added.

As they looked ahead to the training they will receive over the summer, some, like Ibrahim Mohamud, said they have goals of becoming farmers.

“I used to have a garden in front and in back,” Mohamud said. “I liked actually seeing the stuff grow and helping my mom. Farming comes with a lot of skills – landscaping, weather forecasting, construction, working as a team. Farming can help a person. I would like to continue.”

Others, like Hilowle, who wants to become a nurse, plan to use the skills they’ll be learning to pursue other dreams.

They talked eagerly as they took a break to study the snake – tempting it to bite their gloved fingers, admiring its shedding skin, yet cautious at each unexpected, sudden movement.

And as they watched it, they marveled at the snake’s ability to move itself forward, whatever its circumstances.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.

Center 1.jpgIlhan Hilowle throws trash out from the barn she is helping to clean while Osman Hassan looks on. The two are part of the Center for African Heritage’s 12-week pilot training program in organic farm management located at River Point in Falmouth. (Roberts photo)
Center 4.jpgThe old, neglected barn on Falmouth’s River Point property is getting a facelift from 10 Somali teens as part of a 12-week program designed to train them to run an organic farm –from hands-on experience growing crops and caring for livestock to budget-planning, resume-writing and interviewing skills. Here, Osman Hassan pulls nails out of a decaying section of wafer board. (Roberts photo)

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Center 3.jpgMahad Warsame, left, and Bootz Sharrif carry a load of trash from an old barn on Falmouth’s River Point property to a dumpster. Ten Somali teens from Portland are employed for 12 weeks fixing up the deserted barn and house on the property, raising vegetables, goats and chickens and furthering their education and job skills  in a program through the Center for African Heritage, with assistance from Goodwill Workforce Solutions and cooperation from the town of Falmouth. (Roberts photo)