Refugees plant new roots in community gardens
When refugees arrive in the United States, they have left everything familiar behind. The IRC's New Roots program brings refugees together to share experiences and feel a connection to their new home through community gardening and nutrition and micro-enterprise programs.
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New Roots, the IRC’s nationwide gardening, micro-enterprise and nutrition program, enables thousands of refugees to grow healthy food and make an extra income from selling vegetables in local farmers’ markets, restaurants and food companies. Here, refugees sell produce grown by fellow refugees at a farmers' market in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)
By Peter Biro
[SLIDESHOW] Few places are more dissimilar than the remote mountain villages of Central Africa and the car-clogged suburbs of Salt Lake City. But Annociate Uwineza, a refugee from Burundi, has recreated a little bit of Africa on a patch of land in Utah.
Several times a week, Uwineza travels by bus to a community garden where she carefully tends a small plot of vegetables.
“I have been farming since I was nine years old,” she says as she waters a neat row of green amaranth, known in her native language as lenga lenga. “This was my life in Burundi and this is what I am good at.”
As Uwineza waters her plants, she greets fellow gardeners working the 1.5-acre garden. They, too, are refugees from countries as diverse as Bhutan, Myanmar and Ethiopia. Like Uwineza, many of them miss working their own land and growing their own food.
In response, the IRC has launched New Roots, a nationwide program that helps refugees establish community gardens, farmers’ markets, food pantries and farm based businesses.
“The IRC provides agricultural training, tools, seeds and vital connections to potential buyers,” says Ellee Igoe, who supports the IRC’s community food and farming programs in the United States. “We recently connected a group of refugees to Earnest Eats, a national granola bar company that has agreed to buy mint from our farmers.”
In addition to Salt Lake City, the IRC has established New Roots programs in Boise, Idaho; Charlottesville, Virginia; New York City; Phoenix; San Diego; and Seattle. Last year, First Lady Michelle Obama visited the San Diego community garden, calling it “a model for the nation, for the world.”
Encouraging refugees to become farmers may even give a boost to America’s ailing agricultural economy. American farmers are aging and their children are not following in their footsteps.
“We desperately need experienced farmers and refugees can help fill the void,” Igoe says.
In addition to its economic goals, New Roots aims to provide greater access to healthy food in communities that often suffer from poor nutrition. Many refugees come from countries where food is freshly grown or purchased at local markets. But in the U.S., struggling with limited budgets and lacking information about alternatives, many refugees turn to prepackaged or fast food.
“I had never seen spaghetti, cookies or pizza before I came here,” says Uwineza with a laugh. “I am used to vegetables and that’s what I want to eat. They are healthy and taste good.”