When Shahab Bashar was forced to flee Iraq with his wife and daughter in 2014, he thought he would have to leave everything he had known behind.
“Maybe you can go back to your country,” Bashar said. “But we are not going back. We came from a country where there was a war. We were a minority, and they were killing us.”
Unexpectedly, he found a way to retain some parts of his culture through farming at Prairie Pines Nature Preserve, a 10-acre forest preservation area at 3010 N 112th Street.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Forestry Associate Professor Walter Thaine Bagley and his wife, Virginia, purchased Prairie Pines in 1959. They donated the protected land to the University of Nebraska Foundation in 1992.
Community Crops, a non-profit that aims to provide education and resources to growing local food, gained 5 acres of the property from the foundation to do its farming projects back in March 2013.
The non-profit runs two kinds of programs: the garden and farm program. It manages 12 community gardens across Lincoln and three locations for farming, including Prairie Pines.
“The vast majority of [our farmers] are immigrants and refugees, primarily from the Yazidi community, which is an ethnic minority from northern Iraq,” said Megan McGuffey, executive director of Community Crops. “And then we have a gentleman from Cameroon. It’s just kind of a variety, and it changes every year.”
In 2020, over 45% of the gardeners were immigrants and refugees from 25 different countries, and more than 60% of the farmers were of low and moderate income, according to McGuffey.
As a refugee, Bashar said there’s something spiritual or magical in consuming something that is grown from the soil of America.
“Farming makes me feel like I belong to this land,” Bashar said.
Beginning in the mid-2010s, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS, carried out a genocide on the Yazidi community in Iraq’s Sinjar, home to nearly 400,000 Yazidis, with the intent of killing and kidnapping those who refused to convert to Islam.
At least 9,900 Yazidis in Iraq were either killed or kidnapped in 2014, according to a study by the Thomas Reuters Foundation. Six years later, almost 300,000 Yazidis still lived in displacement camps in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, unable to return home due to existing trauma or extreme poverty.
Bashar and his family were not one of them.
With the help of his brother-in-law who worked as a Kurdish interpreter for the U.S. Army, Bashar and his family began their new lives in the U.S. on Feb. 17, 2017.
One of Bashar’s primary concerns about living in America was food.
“I went to Walmart and Hy-Vee, but I didn’t buy any food because they are really expensive and I had very little income,” Bashar said, adding that he had a hard time finding food he used to eat back in Iraq.
Basher’s other concern was finding a job he liked.
In his first year in Lincoln, he was offered a position at Hexagon, a composite cylinders manufacturer in northwest Lincoln. But it didn’t go well.
“I didn’t speak any English,” he said. “They embarrassed me a lot, so I had to quit.”
His next option was Walmart. Bashar said he had to visit the retail outlet seven times in a row to ask for a job before they finally gave him one.
He would spend three to four days a week working part-time at Walmart. For the rest of the week, he could be found at the Yazidi Cultural Center located on 300 N 27th St., where he would try to pick up English with the help of fellow Yazidis.
In 2019, Bashar became the Yazidi cultural liaison for Community Crops.
He was initially hesitant to accept the job since he didn’t speak English very well, but Matt Pirog, former program manager of Community Crops, helped him.
“He told me, ‘Okay, any word you don’t understand, just let me know,’” Bashar said, adding that his work hours had grown from one to 18 hours a month.
Besides being a Kurdish interpreter for Community Crops, Bashar’s task was to find Yazidi farmers for the newly established Yazidi Farmer Outreach and Education Project. The project offers classes, training, technical assistance and land access to Yazidis who are interested in growing their own food.
“They know from the community gardens that Yazidis have a lot of experience in farming back in their home country, so they wanted to bring them into the training program,” Bashar said.
He found three farmers and registered to become a farmer himself to complete the quota.
The project now has six Yazidis farmers.
“This was really taking all the knowledge we learned in our farming programs over the years, all the educational workshops and things you can do by starting out at Prairie Pines and making it accessible to a new audience,” McGuffey said.
Yazidi farmers in Lincoln tend to grow their own varieties of tomato, parsley, cucumber, eggplant, potato, pepper, swiss chard, zucchini, radish, fava bean, apples and garden cress.
On his ⅛ to an acre plot at Prairie Pines, Bashar grows cutting celery, garden cress, radish, okra, eggplant and Lombardo peppers. Most of these vegetables are varieties that are unique to Yazidi cuisine.
For one, garden cress is found mainly in European countries.
“You would not find it in a store here if it weren’t for this particular group of farmers,” said Amy Gerdes, director of operations at Community Crops. “I think a lot of it is going to the Mediterranean market and the three main Arabic markets in town. They buy a lot from our farmers.”
As for cutting celery, Yazidis will usually chop them up and put them in their salad.
Lombardo, also known as pickling pepper, is an old Italian pepperoni variety. As the name suggests, the Yazidi community will harvest the peppers before they turn red and preserve them in pickle jars.
“Ever since I start growing food here, I love my community more and more,” Bashar said.
The original plan was for the refugees to get started with farming at Prairie Pines for five years and move on.
“But what we’ve learned is that it’s really challenging, especially if you’re a refugee or immigrant, to access land in Nebraska,” McGuffey said.
As a result, Community Crops leased a 12-acre land, known as Air Park Farm, from the Lincoln Airport Authority back in July 2021 to provide long-term land access for the refugee farmers.
Not only do Bashar and other Yazidi farmers take their produce home to make traditional dishes, but they will also sell them at the Sunday Farmers’ Market at College View every other weekend.
“They’re really growing both to feed their family but also to grow their business, so they’re selling their food at the farmers’ market, local grocery stores, through wholesalers like Lone Tree Foods,” McGuffey said.
She thought it was amazing how the Yazidi farmers were selling vegetables that were not available in Lincoln before.
“They are bringing these products into our town and kind of rebuilding a cultural foodshed, which I think is both smart business and just a really cool thing,” McGuffey said. “They make Lincoln a better place to live.”