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.

Making Peace with Changing Communities

What happens when a bitter racist is transformed?

In the movie Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man living out his years in a neighborhood that has changed from working-class white to Hmong and Chinese.  He does not like it and makes no pretense of civility and no apology for being an open racist. No one is safe from this behavior, particularly the Hmong mother who lives next door and victim to Kowalski’s growling and racial slurs every time they happen to be on the porch at the same time.

In the course of the movie his character changes and he gradually makes peace with the neighborhood, befriending the teenagers who live next door becoming both friend and protector. A scene showing him at a Hmong feast eating food he has never seen before and still makes no pretense of liking is a great picture of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors.

As I have watched areas in Massachusetts change, I have seen a lot of Walt Kowalskis and a lot of ‘Wanda’ Kowalskis who are at odds with neighborhoods they have deep ties to.  They grieve for a neighborhood that was and struggle with the neighborhood that is.  The words ‘us and them’ are present in their speech and often they are fearful.  Some of them move through a slow process of change, for others it’s too difficult.   The movie initially portrays the tension and hatred of a man at odds with his changing neighborhood, moves on to the slow process of change and ultimately brings the audience to an act of deep love and sacrifice as Walt serves as a human shield to protect his neighbors.  He gradually accepts, and dare I say loves the community that surrounds him.

Communities in the United States are, and will continue to change.  A community health center that I work with saw three thousand patients from 40 different countries and 60 different language groups in just a 6-month time period and that is just one of many examples. As the world continues to move closer, and our interactions become more diverse, the transformation process that Walt Kowalski undergoes in the two-hour film is worth watching and, if needed, modeling.