Planting Roots in American Soil
“I have found that refugees are some of the most resilient people that I know.”
Aley Kent speaks slowly, choosing her words with a sincere purpose. As a Technical Advisor for Food Systems and Agriculture at International Rescue Committee (IRC) for over a year and a half now, she struggles to pin down only one reason why Americans should accept refugees with open arms. Certainly they add richness to the melting pot of the USA, but for Kent, it goes beyond that. “These are some of the strongest people that you come in contact with because they have no choice. They have to be strong, or else they wouldn’t be survivors.”
Upon arrival in the United States, refugees often experience a euphoria from all the possibilities that now lay at their feet. Life used to be cramped camps, poor living conditions, and in some cases sex trafficking or other tortures. Suddenly, life is opportunity, the chance to provide for their family, and to create a promising future. But once this excitement wears off depression and disillusionment can set in. Between language and racial barriers, getting accustomed to American culture is a daily challenge where refugees struggle to belong.
When broken down a little, this sense of belonging can be achieved in many ways, from a vibrant, welcoming community to discovering a sense of home in a new place. And this is exactly what IRC’s New Roots program provides.
The IRC aims to restore the safety, economic empowerment, health, education, and power to the lives of those displaced by crises, and they have always had certain food services in place. Even educating immigrants on the basics, like using a stove and how to shop at the grocery store, is vital. They require at least one member of each household to attend “cultural orientation” classes, which provide a sort of “Food 101” for those new to the United States. “We have put together culturally appropriate shopping lists for our offices to use to stock fridges and to put as healthy food as possible into people’s homes.”
But food goes beyond what we put on our plates—food is a lifestyle and a culture itself.
Kent recalls, “In 2005 there were some Somali women who were here as single mothers with children, and they didn’t really feel that they fit in or that the job market really suited them at all. And they said, ‘Well, we were farmers. So if you can find some land and we can grow food then we can maybe make money that way.’
“So the case manager that was talking with them at the time started exploring that idea with them and set up a partnership with a local high school where they were able to farm and get their kids farming. Then a year or two later they had this big New Roots garden in San Diego which is about 2.5 acres and currently has many people farming on it, both refugees and local residents.”
What started as a small farm in San Diego has grown to thirteen of the twenty-six IRC locations, and each one is unique. In Phoenix, for example, IRC developed the garden from its inception. New York set up a garden established from a vacant lot that’s been transformed into an urban farm. In cities like Baltimore, Atlanta, and Dallas, the properties are actually managed by partner agencies.
One might imagine New Roots is the opportunity for refugees to grow food and sell it, but that’s not the reality. Currently, 130 farm for income, while the remaining 1200 grow for food security and the ability to save money at the grocery store. And while community integration also plays a major role in the program, it’s not the main benefit that Kent and the IRC team has seen from the gardens.
“There are mental health aspects that may not be deliberately spoken, but you talk to any IRC farmer and they’re like, ‘I feel like I’m home being here in the garden. I have a better outlook on life.’ These things that they’re telling us indicate they’re much more mentally well.”
New Roots offers a safe space for immigrants to battle the isolation they often encounter here and find a sense of place. Kent adds, “I think with a lot of families that get resettled here with a husband and wife and kids, the man tends to be the head of household, and they’re the one that needs to be supported to find a first job. Which means the woman is left at home. She doesn’t speak English, she doesn’t get out of her house, and if people haven’t been oriented in their community or don’t understand what’s going on, then there’s a lot of isolation that starts to happen because of that, a lot of depression, and sort of disconnection.”
The gardens are a way to get people out of their homes and interacting with the community—or at the very least getting them to a different place each day. In the United States, people of all backgrounds must work tirelessly just to make ends meet. For many refugees, it means working entry level or multiple minimum wage jobs merely to provide the bare necessities for their family. “So often they’re working night shifts, they’re working two or three jobs. There’s a lot of pavement pounding. These gardens are providing for a lot of people a way for them to take a break and have more than just their home. They have a third place to go to.”
The the IRC is constantly improving their plans to include more programming at New Roots gardens, allowing them to blossom into even more active and engaged places for the community to come together. From cooking demonstrations to fitness classes to language lessons, these types of activities bring people to the space. Then, the positive experiences they have there make them want to return.
All of the services the International Rescue Committee provide help refugees feel like contributors to society again. “There’s been so many years of being pushed around, being told what to do, not being able to work, not being able to build a livelihood.” New Roots is a welcome way for refugees to discover where it is they belong in this new home of theirs.
The IRC helps to resettle approximately 10,000 refugees yearly to the United States as part of a cooperative agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services. For information on donating, volunteering, and building awareness about refugee issues, visit Rescue.org to learn ways that you can get involved.
Theresa is a journalist living in Los Angeles, CA, and she has a passion for discovery and cultivating human connections. Her work has been published and shared on sites like the Burning Man Organization, HOW Design Magazine, The Dieline, The Examiner, and more. Theresa’s writing has taken her snorkeling in between the tectonic plates in Iceland, horseback riding through a rural Brazilian town, and riding an octopus art car at Burning Man with Susan Sarandon as part of a funeral procession for Timothy Leary (long story). When not writing, she is planning her next trip or taking too many pictures of her cat.