Early mornings, Immanuel hoes and weeds rows of onions, spinach, African eggplant, tomatoes and banana peppers. He’s still adjusting to life in Louisville after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo a year ago. 

Hope Community Farm is a taste of home.

The stillness and beauty of the farm is a haven for 60 immigrants from countries in Africa: Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They bear hard stories of loss, war, fleeing for freedom, burying family members, living in refugee camps.

Growers come and go throughout the day to the farm located in South Louisville on land that once was occupied by the Iroquois Housing Projects, which had one of the highest crime rates in the city before they were razed.

Some come in traditional African dress; others in what they call “farm clothes.” They water plants, pull weeds and pick vegetables. It is a world away from the stress of day-to-day life.

The 7-acre farm is the brainchild of Jean de Dieu and Pauline Mukeshimana, who lead Evangelical Church Winning All. They founded Gate of Hope Ministries International to meet needs of refugees—learning English, finding work, getting a driver’s license, learning to use American money and dealing with depression when reality doesn’t match their dreams.

They also provide translation for medical consultations, on-site translation for job interviews, Zoom calls with refugees and a computer coding camp for children.

“As we counseled people coming to Louisville, we saw the same things over and over,” Pauline Mukeshimana said. “They are lonely, couldn’t eat or sleep. They worry about the language and paying their bills. We help with those issues through Gate of Hope and bring them into our church community. In East Africa, almost everyone has a garden. We felt starting Hope Community Farm would give them something familiar to do and build community.”

That happened.

Growers talk during breaks, share advice and trade produce. They look forward to Fridays when they harvest, wash and bag produce.

They talk with Farm Manager Haileigh Arnold, a Southeast Christian Church missionary who has a master’s degree in environmental sustainability. She helps growers utilize their 10-by-10-foot plot and market their produce through Community Supported Agriculture and local farmers markets.

“In the beginning, I felt called to help out,” Arnold said. “Now I feel that I belong here.”

Her role is a delicate balance of serving and managing. She volunteered at ECWA with her high school ministry small group as a teenager and continued to teach Sunday school at the church for years.

“I never planned on being a missionary,” Arnold said. “In undergrad, I wanted to be a science teacher. Then I started working on a master’s in sustainability at the University of Louisville. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it until Hope Community Farm needed a farm manager.”

She’s learning Swahili to talk with growers.

Before COVID-19, she picked growers up at their homes on her way to the farm and took them home in the afternoon. She misses those times of singing and telling stories.

“I know this is good therapy for our growers,” Arnold said. “It cuts back on pain and depression while restoring dignity and hope. Our resettled friends enjoy being together and eating familiar foods. That helps with belly issues. And it gives parents a chance to share stories of their culture in Africa.”

Immanuel is one of seven elderly growers who earn about $250 a month selling the produce through a weekly subscription service.

Southeast member Jennifer DeVries is on the board at Gate of Hope and buys produce from the farm.

“When we talk about vulnerable populations, refugees seem to be beneath the bottom of the barrel,” DeVries said. “They think they’re coming to the ‘land of plenty,’ but life is not easy. They have three months to learn enough English to get by, find a job, learn about public transportation, get a place to live and learn to shop. They are the kindest, hardest working people I have ever met.”