New Roots for Refugees

A struggle that many refugees, and those of us who have lived in various places around the world, have is to find grocery stores where the produce or goods that can create the tastes we are familiar with are available? “No cilantro?” we wail at the confused store worker, who happens to be stacking cold storage cucumbers in neat little sterile, green rows.

Food and produce have a way of either making us feel at home, or alone and alien, as we frantically search for that ingredient or herb and vegetable that we desperately need.

Refugees in San Diego have come up with a solution called “New Roots”. New Roots is a community farming project that is described as a “United Nations of Produce”. 12 countries with 85 “farmers” are involved in this particular farm, an innovative project that builds on the historical legacy of immigrants creatively finding ways to belong and survive. New Roots provides classes on soil irrigation and climate to help women and men know what of their beloved past diets will grow best, and when things should be planted.

Besides fruits, vegetables, and herbs from all over the world, the farmers market where goods are sold is alive with the colors of the world worn by men and women from Somalia, Burundi, Mexico, and more.

In the 1970’s when the Hmong community began to arrive as refugees in cities across the United States “spread like a thin layer of butter throughout the country so they’d disappear.” (from The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) a Hmong advisor to the refugee program urged the government to give this agrarian people a bit of land, assuring them that within a couple of years, the Hmong would be self-sufficient. This, of course, was not taken seriously for many reasons – supposedly too expensive, would be unfair to others, impractical, and would set off “wild protests” from city and suburban-settled Americans, who, even if you gave them a small plot of land, wouldn’t necessarily want it. Interesting that many Hmong communities have experienced greater than 25 plus years of welfare dependency. To transplant an agrarian group to the inner city is neither wise, nor kind. This new idea of community farms that are “dedicated to refugee agriculture” is innovative and becoming wildly successful in various cities across the country.

As I read about these farms, and the sense of belonging that refugees are gaining, simply from working the earth, providing tomatoes for their families and communities that taste like tomatoes, I am reminded of the story of The Secret Garden. Mary, contrary as can be, has been transplanted from the warmth of India after the death of her parents from cholera. There, in the Welsh country side, she has one request of her distant, reclusive uncle “Please Sir, Can I have a bit of earth?” And with a bit of earth, her whole world changes.

Have you moved a lot and struggled to belong? What did it take for you to feel a sense of belonging and home? For some people it’s a “bit of earth” and for others it can be a vocation. Readers, weigh in!

Take a look at this slide presentation from the NY Times! It will give you some great pictures of the New Roots farm stand in the City Heights neighborhood in San Diego.