International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Refugees Plant New Roots at Community Farm

First Lady Michelle Obama calls the IRC-supported farm a model for building healthy communities

Michelle Oboma speaks with Buliali Muya, a refugee from Somalia, at an IRC-supported community farm in San Diego. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters 
Michelle Obama tours the IRC's New Roots Community Farm in San Diego with Bilali Muya (right), a refugee from Somalia, and Muya's friend Khadija Musame. (Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • First Lady Michelle Obama praised an IRC-supported urban farm in San Diego as "a model for the nation, for the world" during an April 15 visit to promote building healthy communities.

  • The farm, a 2.3-acre strip of city-owned land, is tended by some 80 farmers, including Bilali Muya, a refugee from Somalia who works with the IRC as a part-time farm educator.

  • TO HELP:  Get involved with the IRC's work in one of 22 cities across the United States.

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama toured the International Rescue Committee-sponsored New Roots Community Farm in San Diego, a 2.3-acre strip of city-owned land with plots that are tended by members of the local refugee and immigrant communities. One of these farmers, Bilali Muya, is working with the IRC to help his fellow refugees set down new roots in their adopted country:

Imagine being uprooted by war from a rural village in southern Somalia, fleeing to a refugee camp in Kenya and resettling in an urban neighborhood in San Diego. This is the journey of Bilali Muya and his wife, Johora Musa, who arrived in the United States in 2004. The contrast between southern Somalia and Southern California is astonishing, Muya says. “Where I grew up we were farmers. We didn’t worry about putting gas in a car or going to a job, like people do here.”

Like many refugees, Muya missed working his own land and growing crops for food, activities that have sustained generations of Somali Bantu. In San Diego, Muya’s only connection to food was visiting the local grocery store.

With refugees like Muya in mind, the IRC launched an effort to create a community farm in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, home too many refugees and immigrants. It took nearly two years to win the city’s permission, but in September 2009, New Roots Community Farm celebrated its grand opening.

When the IRC broke ground on the 2.3-acre site, it was nothing more than rocks and weeds. Now, 80 refugee families have planted a variety of organic crops, and one gardener has sold his first harvest of kale to a local restaurant. Although the IRC spearheaded the effort, the farm wouldn’t exist without the efforts of the refugee community, says Amy Lint, the IRC’s community development coordinator. “We had been thinking about how to provide more nutritious food to the community but the idea for the farm came from the refugees themselves.”

An important goal of New Roots is to provide enough food to eat and access to healthy food in a community that often lacks both. “Once these basic goals are met, people should be producing enough greens for their own consumption plus a surplus, which could then be sold,” says Lint. New Roots is in the process of gaining certification to sell produce at the City Heights farmers market.

For the refugee farmers, who hail from Somalia, Cambodia, Burma, Uganda, Congo, Kenya, Mexico, Vietnam and Guatemala, New Roots is a also place to come together and share experiences. “The farm has been wonderful for people who can’t speak English and often don’t leave their apartments and feel isolated,” says Muya, who recently was hired by New Roots as a part-time farm educator. “People can walk to the farm, get exercise and avoid stress.”

Adds Muya, “People are coming together, borrowing and sharing seeds with each other. I’ve eaten different kinds of food from different parts of the world. Sharing food is an important part of a people’s self-respect and pride.”

New Roots Community Farm has been granted a three-year permit. After that, its future is uncertain. Muya’s greatest hope is “to see this garden made permanent. I hope to spread the word about the farm and how it is helping people. We look forward to working with people not just in San Diego, but across the state and the country.”

Learn More

Throughout our history the IRC has helped refugees build new lives in the US. Our staff and volunteers ensure that newcomers have what they need to get started in their adopted land.  

Story: Michelle Obama Tours IRC-Sponsored Community Garden in San Diego

Video: Take a video tour of the New Roots Community Farm with YouTube video volunteer LisaNova

Blog: Refugees’ urban farm welcomes Michelle Obama

In the News:  Read coverage of the First Lady's visit by the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Associated Press and The Huffington Post