Urban gardens provide outlet for cultural expression for refugees

Published: Monday, Aug. 20 2012 3:26 p.m. MDT

The International Rescue Committee is successfully helping refugees become acclimated to new surroundings by allowing them to garden. The refugees grow crops and revisit cultural practices as part of the IRC's New Roots program.

"Each year, the IRC helps thousands of refugees who have been granted sanctuary in the United States to rebuild their lives," according to the New Roots website. "An essential part of our broader resettlement efforts, the New Roots program enables refugees to (re-establish) their ties to the land, celebrate their heritage and nourish themselves and their neighbors by planting strong roots in their new communities."

The gardens provide essential fruits and vegetables that the refugees either eat or sell to support their families. Everything from eggplant to Cameroonian peanut plants can be grown.

"Food is one of the most significant, visceral ways we are connected to culture," said Ellie Igoe, New Roots' national coordinator in San Diego, in a recent USA Today article. "Refugees have been disconnected from those kinds of rituals. When that happens, we suffer emotionally. And so when we're able to get back to those things, it enlivens us."

There are about 400 refugees in the United States taking part in the program, according to USA Today, and the 6-year-old initiative has roots in states from New York to Arizona.

"At 17 farms in nine cities, refugees and other immigrants aided by the IRC tend vegetables at community gardens and either take them home or sell them at farmers' markets," reported USA Today.

The importance of this outlet is evidenced by widespread anecdotes from refugees who take solace in these gardens. Many have fled their countries due to war or famine and are now building new lives around the gardens.

"With language and cultural hurdles, and the need to gain access to land, financing and marketing, farm ownership for refugees can be very difficult," reported the New York Times. "Programs like New Roots, which provide training in soil, irrigation techniques and climate, 'help refugees make the leap from community gardens to independent farms,' said Hugh Joseph, an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts, which advises 28 incubator farms representing hundreds of small-scale producers."

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