Hsar Ree Ree Wei empowers refugees and preserves her cultural heritage through farming
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Hsar Ree Ree Wei, 25, has big ambitions for herself and Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, the Chapel Hill nonprofit organization she leads as executive director. She helps preserve her cultural identity through education and agriculture on the 8 acres off of Jones Ferry Road where other refugees from Burma (also known as Myanmar) can gather and build community.
“We love our food,” Ree Ree says about growing fruit and vegetables familiar to refugees from Burma. When she was a child, she remembers how her family would drive to High Point or Greensboro to find Asian food markets that would sell produce like bitter melon or water spinach. Such items were not available in local grocery chains in Chapel Hill or Carrboro but could be found in the Triad area where many Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees settled in the state. North Carolina has the fourth largest refugee population from Burma, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
In the early 2000s, a garden project by the Orange County Partnership for Young Children, a Smart Start initiative, primarily served children of the Latino immigrant community and then included arriving refugees from Burma. By 2010, Kelly Owensby founded Transplanting Traditions Community Farm and formed a grant-funded partnership with the Triangle Land Conservancy to lease the property for agricultural purposes.
Today, 25 refugee farmers from Burma grow seasonal fruit and vegetables, including varieties popular in Asian cuisine but difficult to find in local grocery store chains. “Every farmer gets their own number of beds based on the size of their operation,” Ree Ree says. “One or two farmers have almost an acre. Our smallest farmers have about two beds because they are only growing food for themselves and their families.” Ree Ree says there is also a food access program for part-time farmers, like stay-at-home moms who cannot spend entire days farming but still need to generate a small income by selling produce.
Ree Ree was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1998 after her parents and two older sisters had escaped military skirmishes that have plagued Burma for decades, making it “the setting of one of the longest-running civil wars in the world.” Two more siblings were born in that camp, too.
She was 8 years old when she and her family landed in Chicago in 2006 to begin a long resettlement process in the United States. At first, they were sent to Columbia, South Carolina, but seven months later they were moved to Chapel Hill where her youngest sibling was born.
Navigating between two vastly different worlds, Ree Ree and her siblings have come to appreciate her family’s challenging journey to build a new life for themselves in North Carolina. Ree Ree says her generation wants to change the narrative about refugees from Burma. “Instead of calling us Karen (pronounced kah-REN), we want to go back to the root and say we are K’nyaw (pronounced kah-NYAW) because that’s how we would say it in our native language,” she says about the name that the ruling government in Burma imposed on the ethnic minority group. There are 111 different ethnic languages in Burma, and the K’nyaw people are the largest ethnic minority group.
Ree Ree graduated in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in community and justice studies at Guilford College. “In my view, my major helped me think and see things differently in that we are a community, [so] we have to act together as a community,” she says.
Ree Ree knows she is young to become the leader of the organization, but she had been at Kelly Owensby’s side for 11 years in different roles. Despite a lot of paperwork, Ree Ree enjoys envisioning exercises with the farmers, asking them what they want to see in five years. Another important aspect to her role is challenging preconceived notions about Asian and Asian American stereotypes. She asks of the future: “What do young people need or want? What do we hope the newer generation, and the many generations that will be born in a new country, need to learn about our culture and our heritage through food?”
Ree Ree says British colonization and civil war in Burma caused many refugees to lose access to their own land. “It’s like losing a piece of who you are,” Ree Ree says. “And then going through the ethnic cleansing and the genocide is just so much that right now, [I] – and so many people my age – want to learn more about [our country’s] history. But where are the books to read about that? What happened before colonization? What were my ancestors doing? What were their practices?”
To answer these questions, Ree Ree wants to expand educational and cultural programs at the farm and to widely share the customs and traditions of her family’s ancestral homeland. “For me, where I belong is hard to say,” she says. “I don’t want to say I’m from Burma, because I wasn’t born there, but there’s a lot of spiritual connection. I was born in Thailand, but in a refugee camp, you are considered stateless. When I went off to college, there were community groups of people who are from Burma, but I don’t feel I fit in. It was just so different. And, I don’t feel I belong in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. At Transplanting Traditions, I can speak my language. I feel the most belonging here.”
Ree Ree shares news about her siblings: Her eldest sister stays home to care for her kids. One sister is in college. Another sister is the farm’s youth and children program coordinator (a position Ree Ree once held, too). Her brother is starting his own part-time microgreen business and also does tattoo art. Her youngest sister is still in high school.
She turns her attention back to the plants in the field and points out a favorite among farmers at Transplanting Traditions – the roselle, a member of the hibiscus plant family. “It’s a sour plant that is used in a lot of savory dishes and many people will cook and make soup. They’ll make chili paste, and then some people will eat the leaves, too. But my favorite is the bud. It’s sweet and tart, and I love it. My sister’s gonna make [soup] tonight so I’m going to her house.”
Roselle, Potato and Lemon Grass Soup
by farmer Tri Sa
1 bunch roselle greens
Lemon grass (white part, chopped)
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 big onion, chopped
1 bag of new potatoes, diced
4-6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
Salt and pepper, to taste
Torn lemon basil (optional)
Pull the roselle leaves off their stem and chop them. Prepare the lemon grass by peeling off the outermost layers and cut off the top portion of the stalk. (Save these pieces to add to stock or to steep in boiling water for a tea.) The remaining core of the stalk should be whitish and fragrant. Chop this up.
In a pot over medium heat, heat olive oil and add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add roselle greens and stir until wilted. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, boil about 4 cups of well-salted water (or broth) and toss in the chopped potatoes. Next, add the lemon grass to the liquid. Once the potatoes are fork tender, take the soup off the heat and add the cooked roselle and onion and torn lemon basil (if using). Stir and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or chilled.