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VA Cooperative Extension Helps Afghan Refugees Forge ‘Path Forward’ in Sheep Farming

Before the Taliban toppled their government, they were senior government officials, engineers, and veterinarians in Afghanistan. After the fall of Kabul, they resettled in Northern Virginia to start their lives over with 23,000 other Afghans in a strange, new place.

“We had to start our lives from scratch,” said Barakat Rahmati, the former deputy Afghan ambassador to Qatar, who sought refuge in the U.S. in early August 2021. “All of us have lost most of the things we could relate to and the only thing remaining for us here was this group of newfound people that could speak the same language.”

Now living in Fairfax County, Rahmati runs a nonprofit dedicated to forming policy to help lead Afghanistan on a path to peace. With his family, he operates Herat Saffron, the world’s leading exporter of Afghan saffron. And along with seven other refugees he met in the U.S., Rahmati now hopes to form an Afghan-owned sheep operation in Northern Virginia.

“We were looking for opportunities to work together to run a business,” said Rahmati, the group’s spokesman, whose family in Afghanistan had a farm with over 1,000 sheep. “Because we come from a country that is mainly dependent on agriculture and livestock, we were familiar with taking care of livestock. In our group, we had a veterinarian, an agricultural engineer, and a pool of knowledge and resources about sheep farming. It sounded like a viable business opportunity.”

The group reached out to Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Loudoun County office, seeking advice on raising sheep in the area and locating suitable land. Jim Hilleary, an Extension agent in the county who is also a retired career U.S. Army officer, said he and other agents leaped at the chance to help Afghan refugees who had lost so much in the war against terrorism.

“Their story was very moving and compelling,” Hilleary said. “Even setting aside the human aspect, that’s what we are here to do in Extension – help people improve their wellbeing. If we can help these folks stand up a large-scale sheep operation, it’s the right thing to do for them and the right thing to do for the agricultural community.”

The Extension agents quickly formed Team Afghan Shepherd Program, composed of members representing six Virginia Cooperative Extension units, the School of Animal Sciences and the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, the USDA, and the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development. Together, 15 people developed a comprehensive training program to address all aspects of production.

There was just one catch: The lessons and materials had to be delivered in Dari, the Afghans’ preferred language.

“It’s the only foreign language outside of Spanish that our agents have provided training in,” Hilleary said. “All of our team members have enjoyed working with the Afghan refugees and getting first-hand experience developing and presenting materials for a non-English learner audience.”

Working with translators contracted by Loudoun County, the agents developed and presented 16 in-person and online sessions, along with written materials, in topics ranging from animal health and husbandry to budgeting, infrastructure, and sustainable farming. They also hosted the Afghans at the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center and visited VSU’s Mobile Processing Unit and the livestock auction in Madison, Virginia.

“We are so grateful for their readiness to shape this program,” Rahmati said. “Every instructor has done a great job. They’ve done a lot of research about the differences that exist between sheep farming and production in Virginia compared to Afghanistan. The presentations were specifically tailored to us and offered expert advice and extensive training to make our operation a success.”

If the refugees can get their sheep operation up and running, they have a strong chance at success. Virginia is home to the nation’s second-largest population of Afghan refugees after California, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Rahmati says the Northern Virginia and Greater Washington metropolitan areas have large Muslim populations with strong demand for Halal lamb meat, raised and slaughtered according to Islamic tradition.

Members of the group have already purchased a processing plant, which is a key step in reaching their production goals. They are still looking for land, developing a comprehensive business plan, and working with Virginia Cooperative Extension and local government officials on the next steps to fulfill their dream of sheep farming.

“Virginia Cooperative Extension has been such a great resource for us to navigate our path forward in the States and establish ourselves as newcomers,” Rahmati said. “These programs extend beyond technical guidance for business operations; they symbolize a beacon of hope, demonstrating that in desperate times, there are individuals who genuinely care for one another and affirm our belief in forging a promising future. The unwavering assistance provided by these compassionate individuals serves as a profound testament to the power of human kindness.”

– Max Esterhuizen

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