Jawn Golo watched flames destroy her home and possessions in the Liberian Civil War and thought that her world was over.
“I just thought that was the end of my life,” says Golo, 50.
She and her husband, James Golo, fled with their children from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, in October. Nearly two decades after rebels burned their home on Africa’s western coast, the family leads a quieter life in Litchfield Park, some 15 miles west of Phoenix, Ariz., running an organic farm they started with the help of a refugee program.
The Golos are among 1,190 resettled Liberian refugees in the state, according to the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program. Their business, Golo Family Organic Farm, sits on nine acres. “We grow cucumbers, eggplants, melons, jute leaves, okra, green beans, zucchini and sweet potatoes” and sell them to local grocers, says James, 52.
The couple and their five children, ages 16 through 27, spent a recent day crouched around a mound of globe eggplants, trimming stems and boxing the vegetables to meet a surprise order. The heap of ripe purple fruit, green fields and radio music buzzing in the background tell the story of a new beginning for the family, who once lived on leaves boiled in polluted water.
The Golos’ journey to the southwest valley of metro Phoenix began in the open lands in Monrovia, where they scavenged bushes for edible leaves and fruit to trade for meager rations of rice and cooking oil while fleeing the civil war that broke out in 1989. The couple worried about their unborn baby, knowing that when he arrived there would be no medical attention or even a blanket to swaddle him from the rain. “But if there is life, then there is hope,” Jawn says. “I prayed harder than ever.”
Her prayers seemed answered on Oct. 3, 1990, when a United Nations ship took the family to the refugee camp of Buduburam, in neighboring Ghana. The passage lasted 42 hours. At Buduburam, refugees such as the Golos were safe but faced cholera, hunger and depression as they waited to be resettled.
An accountant by training, James became a farmer while living in the camp. In Liberia, he worked for Mobil Corp. for 10 years as a supervisor in the accounting department. “They sent me to university to do accounting, then I went to Holland to study procedure-guide management,” he says.
In Ghana, unable to find work in his field, he turned to farming. “You had to find a means to survive, so I learned farming,” he says. “I had a poultry farm, a pig farm and a vegetable farm through the assistance of the Lutheran World Service.”
He also built a clinic for the refugee camp, which, he says still functions today.
A letter from the U.N. Refugee Agency renewed the family’s hope in June 2005, 15 years after leaving Liberia. The Golos were selected from a list of longtime refugees to be resettled in the Phoenix area. “It was like a dream; at first we didn’t believe it,” says James.
It has taken several local and international nonprofit groups to help the Golos adjust to a new life in metropolitan Phoenix. The Refugee Agency paid for their plane tickets and travel expenses. Catholic Social Services of Central and Northern Arizona assisted with housing and food until the Golos could get back on their feet. The International Rescue Committee of Phoenix and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency supported the Golos as they entered the farming business in 2007. A member of Trinity Lutheran Church now rents a Phoenix home to the family for $350 a month.
In Litchfield Park, the Golos lease their farmland from Arizona-based Blue Sky Organic Farms Inc. Their goal is to become self-sufficient. They don’t have the money to buy outright just yet and are considering leasing with an option to buy, an arrangement their current landlord does not wish to make. Their current lease expires in January.
“Our overall goal is to have our own farm, our own place. It costs a lot to stay on this farm,” James says. “Maybe you can afford to pay the lease, but you cannot afford to hire the equipment and labor is expensive. Right now we desperately need a tractor, even if it’s a 1980 tractor.”
The Golos use no pesticides, harvest all their crops by hand, and sell only in Phoenix and surrounding areas. “We haven’t gone nationwide. We do our distribution through Whole Foods Market, farmers markets and customers who come to the farm and buy,” James says. To help his cash flow, he plans is developing a “community supported agriculture” operation, or CSA, which individuals must pay $5 to join and $25 each week for a box of vegetables and fruits.
CSAs have been gaining momentum in the United States since its introduction from Europe in the mid-1980s. The concept originated in the 1960s in Switzerland and Japan, where consumers interested in safe food and farmers seeking stable markets for their crops joined together in economic partnerships.
Income from the Golos farm helps to pay for the college education of their daughter and three of their sons, all of whom work on the farm, especially on weekends. “When the kids are in school it’s only me and my wife,” says James, who was named a Farmer of the Year in 2009 by the local Minority Farm Owner organization.
The daughter attends Glendale Community College and is about to receive certification as a registered nurse. She plans to further her studies to become a pediatric nurse. In the meantime, she sells the family farm’s produce in local farmers’ markets every Wednesday and Saturday.
One son attends the University of Arizona and is studying physics. “He does the invoices on his computer, finds the markets and determines package sizes. He has to contribute to his education” to complement the grants he received, his father says.
Another son is studying information technology at Brown Mackie College in Tucson and plans to continue at Arizona State, while a third is studying graphic design at Glendale Community College. The youngest boy, who was born in the refugee camp, is now in the 11th grade and plays basketball for his school.
The Golos say farming in the Arizona heat is not easy, but they are grateful for the stability, education and opportunities available to their children. “Here the rule of law is stronger,” James says. “People can’t harm you and go free.”
Farming also keeps him fit, he says.
Liberia has restored peace since an elected government was installed in 2006. But the Golos say they are unlikely to return to the country, which is plagued by high unemployment. What the family hopes for now is to end 19 years of exile and become U.S. citizens. “Anywhere can be your home, if there is love,” Jawn says.