September 08, 2013

A Gardening Program Helps Refugees Learn and Put Down Roots

Photograph by Peter Biro

Bantu refugees from Somalia weed newly planted peppers in San Diego.

Eggplant, okra, melons, and onions—not to mention less common crops like amaranth and an Egyptian green called molokhia—are helping refugees who have settled in the United States feel connected to their homelands, find a place in their new communities, and even earn some extra money.

New Roots, a program run by the International Rescue Committee, has helped 850 refugees connect with 45 community gardens, roughly 20 of which are run by the charity. In some cities, like Phoenix and San Diego, the program provides training in how to start agriculture businesses and helps participants sell their produce at farmers’ markets and to schools and restaurants. The program’s 2013 budget is $2-million, from a combination of private contributions and government money.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the 7,600 refugees the International Rescue Committee helped resettle in the United States last year came from agrarian backgrounds. New Roots helps participants feel more at home as they adjust to living in a new country, says Ellee Igoe, who coordinates the program nationally.

“Everything about migration and resettlement is overwhelming and uprooting,” she says. “This gives them an opportunity to do something that feels comfortable.”

New Roots participants often reach out to one another and to other immigrants in their neighborhoods, helping to bridge what can sometimes be tense relations between ethnic groups. Farmers learn the names of fruits and vegetables in multiple languages, Ms. Igoe says, and it’s not unusual to hear growers from Africa call out “amaranto” in Spanish to try to entice Hispanic customers at the farmers’ market to buy their amaranth.

“It isn’t just this thing where they stick in their ethnic enclave,” she says. “Food is allowing them to reach across these boundaries in ways that you might never have expected.”

Koffi Ogou, who fled political violence in Togo, sells the fruits and vegetables he grows through the Gila Farm Cooperative, a business that grew out of the New Roots program in Phoenix. As a child, he helped his father and grandfather in the fields. He’s thrilled to be working the land again and hopes one day to start his own farm.

“When you come to the farm and you see everything green, everything is growing, it’s a pleasure to see that,” says Mr. Ogou. “When you have that, you can share with friends.”

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.