CLEVELAND—On the Republican National Convention stage over the past three nights, refugees have been a popular punching bag. Rudy Giuliani said Syrian refugees could be "operatives who are terrorists, who are going to come to Western Europe and here and kill us." Ted Cruz claimed that the Obama administration was "admitting ISIS terrorists as refugees."
But that angry rhetoric doesn't reach the Ohio City Farm, a mile away from the arena where the convention is taking place. Here, at the largest contiguous urban farm in North America, refugees from around the world are adapting to their new lives in the United States—and growing delicious produce for their adopted city.
The six-acre farm is just across the Cuyahoga River from downtown, and the city's skyline looks out over the fields of vegetables and bushes of flowers. On Wednesday morning, eight refugees worked under a clear sky, harvesting potatoes, lettuce, basil, and other crops.
They're employed by a nonprofit called The Refugee Response, part of a coalition of groups that resettle and support refugees in Cleveland. Giving the refugees farm jobs in the middle of the city is an innovative way to help them make use of their expertise in agriculture.
"I feel like I belong to this country," said Lar Doe, 33, taking a break from a busy day of harvesting. He came from Burma in 2010 after living 15 years in a refugee camp, and was resettled in Iowa before moving to Cleveland. After working on the farm more than a year, he's now the manager, helping train other refugees in farming techniques. "Many American people don't know about refugees," he said. "Everything is the very beginning for us. Even the small things are big challenges for refugees."
At first, this land was slated for development, but it soon became clear that any kind of building constructed on the plot along the river would probably sink into the ground. So in 2010, a community group turned it into a farm. They invited Amish farmers to plow the first fields.
These days, produce from the farm is sold to 18 restaurants around the city, a market stand on the street outside the farm, and a group of Cleveland residents who sign up to buy regular fresh veggies.
The current team of eight refugees includes three people from Burma, three from Bhutan, one from Somalia, and one from Burundi. There's a long waiting list of people who want to join for one- to three-year stints. Darren Hamm, the executive director of The Refugee Response, said that having a multicultural team was part of the plan.
"A large portion of the refugee community was agrarian, there was a huge vacant land opportunity, and there's this up-and-coming foodie industry," Hamm said in a greenhouse on the farm, standing next to cucumber plants as tall as him. "We designed it as a step above farm labor. You don't come here just to work. You come here as part of a training mechanism. You get paid an hourly rate. You're integrated as part of a business, so you're selecting seed, managing site, prepping, packaging, distributing." A few lazy bumblebees flew around in the hot air.
Some of the refugees who work here speak only a few words of English, and others are illiterate after growing up without schooling or in a refugee camp. But all of them are experienced farmers, and bring expertise from their own countries. All the farming is done without chemicals and with hand tools, and many of the crops are selected because they're also farmed in the refugees' home countries.
"Everything is different in Cleveland," said Saw Ha Nee, 61, who is also from Burma. He cocked his yellow Cleveland baseball cap and pointed to the tall buildings in downtown. "This city is beautiful."
Hom Gautam, 62, came from Bhutan in 2010 after living in a Nepalese refugee camp. He came to Chicago before moving to Cleveland for work with his wife, four kids, and two grandchildren.
He used to run his own farm in Bhutan—six acres, the same size as the Ohio City plot. But there, in the foothills of the Himalayas, his crops were all rice.
Now, he says he's happy. "Children good, job good, life good, people good," he said with a grin.
None of the farm's employees said they paid much attention to American politics or the Republican convention this week, although most that I spoke to had heard Trump's name. During the convention, "this farm has remained really quiet," Hamm said. "It's very strange having that here in town when we're such an immigrant-family community, such a welcoming city—it's counter to what many of us feel truly is the heart of the city."
Gautam and Doe, who both became citizens within the last year, will vote for the first time in their lives in November. (Refugees are eligible for citizenship after living in the U.S. five years.) Both said that they weren't sure whom to vote for yet, and Doe says he plans to do more research before deciding. "In my view, anyone who wants to be a president, they always have good parts and weak parts. All I can say is nobody's perfect," he said, diplomatically.
For the refugees here, being in the United States is a point of pride. All of those I talked to mentioned the date they arrived in the country, and Gautam and Doe named the date of their citizenship ceremony.
The politicians taking the stage at the RNC like to depict refugees as terrorists and a danger to American society. But if they took a short trip to the farm, they could get a very different perspective. While there's only one day left in the convention, Hamm said Trump and his fellow refugee-bashers are welcome to come see the farm in action: "They can come visit any time."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.