By Rick Burnette
Fleeing Pol Pot’s killing fields before being sequestered in refugee camps on the Thai border and finally settling in a rural Gulf Coast community, the Cambodian migrants of Rosharon, Texas have faced their share of challenges.
Rosharon’s flat, marshy landscape is not unlike their homeland. And months of heat and humidity make the site quite suited for growing water spinach. In Southeast Asia, this aquatic plant is often found growing in ditches and canals. Unfortunately, this tasty, nutritious green is classified as an invasive plant and to grow it requires regulation and oversight from agricultural officials.
Over the past few decades, Rosharon has become the unofficial water spinach capital of the US, being one of only a few locations where the crop is grown domestically. Demand from Asian markets and restaurants is considerable.
The production of water spinach is hot, exhausting work. To comply with regulations, the farmers of Rosharon are required to grow their crop in plastic-covered greenhouse structures. Combined with normal Gulf Coast summertime heat and humidity, the temperature inside these production houses can be almost unbearable, resulting in farmers’ only being able to work inside these structures for brief stretches. Not surprisingly, labor is often in short supply, making it hard for the farmers—mostly middle-aged or older—to struggle to maintain production.
To minimize overhead costs, their greenhouses have been constructed and are maintained as economically as possible. Basically, these structures are not very strong.
When the winds and rain of Hurricane Harvey hit coastal Texas on August 24, 2017, Rosharon took a direct hit. With four feet of flood water, many of the houses were flooded in addition to suffering roof damage. Not surprisingly, most of the plastic-covered structures were left in shambles.
To add to the chaos, soon after the storm a coalition of far-right groups arrived. Setting up headquarters in the community, they initially offered assistance. However, they also obstructed FEMA efforts to engage affected households. Eventually, as community members chose to accept much-needed governmental assistance, the militia presence gradually melted away.
Meanwhile, in nearby Houston, CBF field personnel, Butch and Nell Green, also experienced the storm’s impact. Parts of their refugee ministry area, including Houston’s Fifth Ward and South Houston, were submerged.
Not long after Hurricane Harvey struck, Panha Mey, pastor of the CBF-affiliated Cambodian Baptist Church of Houston, informed the Greens about the plight of Rosharon farmers. Traveling to the community with Alan Williams, CBF’s Domestic Disaster Response specialist, they found many families with unlivable homes and destroyed greenhouses.
The most urgent response was to provide temporary shelter for dozens of households forced out of their homes. Using disaster funds, the CBF team purchased enough tents to house well over 50 families. Besides flood and wind damage, many of the homes were unlivable due to water contamination of their wells. In addition to mucking out the homes, repair to pumps and septic systems took months.
CBF Disaster Response, unaware that there would soon be two additional hurricanes to impact Florida and Puerto Rico, began to coordinate resources for long-term recovery in Rosharon as well as distressed parts of the Fifth Ward and South Houston.
In response, between September 2017 and July 2018, 20 CBF-related congregations sent 386 volunteers to Rosharon to clean out and rebuild 19 homes as well as nine damaged greenhouses. Volunteer teams represented Texas- and Louisiana-based congregations as well as churches in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. Non-CBF groups from the University of Wisconsin and Virginia’s William and Mary College as well as a Massachusetts congregation responded as well. Most of these teams were housed by three Houston-based churches, Baptist Temple, Willow Meadows and South Main, with a shower trailer sent by CBF Arkansas in support of the volunteers.
Additionally, the Greens were hosting teams that helped with recovery in Houston’s Fifth Ward as well as South Houston. These groups removed flood muck from 15 houses and two churches and helped rebuild 13 homes. As incidences of human trafficking are known to increase in the aftermath of disaster events, some of the volunteers also assisted Nell by handing out thousands of information pamphlets in partnership with the City of Houston and the mayor’s office.
By the end of July 2018, the Rosharon and Houston recovery efforts were wrapping up. It was then that Butch, Alan and I met a few of the Rosharon residents who had partnered with CBF for recovery. One farmer named Linda showed us her rebuilt greenhouses with a new crop of water spinach that had recently been planted with the help of Butch and volunteers from First Baptist Church Jefferson City, Missouri. We also met Peter and Phalanie, a couple whose home had been rebuilt. Heading out to sell their freshly harvested water spinach, their affection for Butch was obvious.
We also visited Samuth, a stroke victim whose home had been severely damaged by the wind and flood. We admired a new floor and ceiling that had been recently installed in Samuth’s home by volunteers from First Baptist Church, Lufkin, Texas.
After a year of engagement, Butch, Nell and CBF Disaster Response recently wrapped up the Rosharon, Texas effort. But the Rosharon-CBF legacy will not end.
Through years of upheaval and hard work as well as Hurricane Harvey, the Cambodian residents of Rosharon can certainly be described as resilient. And with the loving involvement of the Greens, teams of volunteers and other types of CBF disaster recovery assistance, hopefully they are even more resilient in the face of challenges that might lie ahead.
Rick Burnette is a CBF field personnel serving as the U.S. Disaster Response Coordinator. Learn more about CBF Disaster Response at www.cbf.net/dr.