Food can unite people in extraordinary ways. The IRC’s Nutrition and Food Security Program’s community gardening project has over 51 participants from countries such as Burundi, Syria, Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic of Congo. Early this month, refugees, staff, volunteers and the Tucson community came together and celebrated the garden’s fall harvest through food, knowledge exchange and stories.
Community Health Promoter, Josepha Ntakirutimana, shares how the community garden creates a safe, community space for refugees where they can grow. “The work done by IRC is so important to refugees and families because they are getting healthy organic food,” Ntakirutimana said. “Clients’ physical health have improved by working in the gardening [and] doing exercises instead of staying at home. By gardening, clients are more connected to their neighbors, as they are sharing vegetables, [their] expenses are reduced by using vegetables from the garden not from stores, [and] refugees’ outlook of life and the future are improved now as they are farming for business purpose.”
With all these benefits from gardening, refugee participants and the community had a lot to celebrate.
Just a couple of years ago, the program started modestly with nutrition education for newly arrived refugees. The Nutrition and Food Security Program continued to expand and advance to better meet the needs of newly arrived refugees. Currently, the IRC Tucson provides gardening land for 51 families, summing up to about 256 individuals who benefit from the gardens, at locations provided by the Community Gardens of Tucson.
The International Rescue Committee provides interested refugees with a plot of land in a garden close to their residence. The IRC then pays the plot fee, provides seeds and materials, and teaches workshops. Julia Munson, Tucson IRC’s Garden Specialist, maintains the gardens where clients grow their food. “I conduct monthly workshops to help people transition their agricultural knowledge to the Tucson climate because it’s often very different than where people are coming from. Also, just learning to grow in this particular manner, because we’re using irrigation that’s [probably] different than what people are used to,” Munson said.
Through funding from the William and Mary Greve Foundation, the Newman’s Own Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, Prima County Outside Agency, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the program grew to extend community gardening, community events, agricultural trainings, leadership development, Women’s Adjustment Group sessions in the gardens, and knowledge exchange workshops with community partners.
The effects of these expansions have had monumental effects on the refugees which the IRC serves. The garden offers a much-needed community engagement for many refugees who feel isolated. “A lot of women get isolated if they have small children and no childcare and their husband is working, so many of our gardeners are women,” Tucson IRC’s Nutrition and Food Security Program Supervisor Katrina Martinez said. The Fall Harvest Celebration epitomizes how community became an essential part of community gardening. Past events have drawn out local members of the Tucson community, including veterans, university students and volunteers.
“This past year, with our clinician Sarah Holiday, we hosted a psycho-social adjustment group. That was 12 women who met once a week and Sarah taught [a curriculum] called Pathways Adjustment,” Martinez said. “The curriculum is especially made for refugees, kind of group therapy style, but more loose. It’s about life skills, what are your goals, what are your experiences, things like that. To see some of our women who didn’t even know how to ride the bus come to that group, then independently coming on their own by the end of the eight weeks, didn’t have any friends or were really isolated or really depressed, were showing up, knitting, riding the bus on their own, and had their group of friends…I think that was a huge success that I’ve seen through our women.”
Building community in Tucson is extremely important for refugees, especially with the current political heat surrounding emigrating refugees in the United States. “I see kind of hilarious friendships develop. [One of our clients], for example, [is] an elder of the community, and has a really strong sense of humor and she’ll kind of pick on the veterans when they come and they [develop] really fun, playful relationships. They don’t even speak a word of the same language and they can still be friendly with one another. I think that’s what creates the safe place, which is really important nowadays…To know the garden is somewhere where they can be around other Americans and other refugees and feel safe is a huge success,” Martinez says.
In the future, the IRC is working toward the creation of a Literacy Garden. Literacy Connects will be partnering with the IRC to create literacy backpacks for refugee children and their parents.
The Fall Harvest Celebration was held on November 3 at the Nottinghill Community Garden. This event featured food from the garden, a workshop, a raffle prize, and a look at the work the IRC and refugees do in the garden.
If you would like to contribute to the work the IRC is doing to eliminate refugee’s food insecurity, please consider donating! The IRC is always in need of supplies, donations, and individuals who are interested in leading a workshop related to food-based skills.
Authored by Jacqui Marzocca