Lourdes Medrano
Aziza Bakhid, a refugee from Sudan, harvesting pumpkins and leaves.

TUCSON, Ariz. — In a small field on the outskirts of this desert town near the Mexican border, close to 30 women and men stoop over rows of pumpkins, carefully picking the pulpy autumn fruit along with its flowers, stems and leaves.

The volunteers are part of an innovative program that helps refugees from war-torn countries find work and food. Called the Iskashitaa Refugee Network, the Arizona-based organization consists of a diverse group that harvests donated crops from local farms and people's backyards to feed displaced populations from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

On this recent fall afternoon, Adam Abubakar, a refugee in his early 30s who came to Arizona two years ago from the conflicted Darfur region of Sudan, quickly clips pumpkin leaves and drops them in a tote bag for later distribution to newcomers who eat them. For Abubakar, picking fruits and vegetables comes second nature. Back in his homeland, he grew most of the food his family consumed before years-long raging violence pushed him out along with masses of fellow Sudanese.

"Pumpkins, guava, lemons, tomatoes, many, many things in Sudan," he said, searching for the right words in English, a language he is still learning. "But I am here now because there is too much fighting in my country."

Seeking a safe haven

As world conflicts escalate, droves of people like Abubakar flee war-torn lands, leaving everything behind in search of a safe haven. Each year, tens of thousands arrive in the United States, where the government provides refugees limited resettlement assistance and organizations such as Iskashitaa work to help the newcomers become self-sufficient as they adapt to American society. Refugees working in the pumpkin field not only harvest the fruits and vegetables they eat, but they also distribute crops to fellow newcomers, learn about urban gardening, market what they grow, and participate in cross-cultural food exchanges.

Refugees starting over in the U.S. have a presence in virtually every state, with Texas, California and New York resettling the highest numbers last year. In Arizona, where the government's low tolerance for illegal immigrants is well established, 2,964 refugees got a friendlier welcome last year. In the same period, the federal government admitted about 70,000 refugees. That number, which is less than 1 percent of the world's 16.7 million refugees, was the maximum allowed under a limit the president sets annually for humanitarian and foreign policy reasons.

In the Darfur region alone, fighting between rebel groups and military forces since 2003 has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than 2.5 million people, according to the United Human Rights Council.

"Only the most vulnerable of the vulnerable are resettled," said Daniel Langenkamp, a State Department spokesman. "These are people who are victims of torture, or rape victims, people who have special medical needs, unaccompanied female head of households sometimes."

Refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, ethnicity, political views or membership in a particular social group are eligible for U.S. resettlement after passing security and medical screenings. For example, the federal government considers the Bantu-speaking people who arrived as slaves in Somalia during the 19th century a persecuted minority eligible for refugee status.

The number of incoming refugees has fluctuated over time and reflects shifting world conflicts and heightened security concerns. In 1980, for instance, 207,000 refugees — including many displaced by the Vietnam War — resettled within the country.

Working together

Iskashitaa was founded in 2003 by Barbara Eiswerth, an environmental scientist, with help from Somali Bantu refugee students who began harvesting crops no one was picking to boost their diet. The refugees inspired the name of the fledgling group: "working cooperatively together." Since then, Iskashitaa has worked with thousands of survivors of war and persecution from more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Cameroon, Iraq, Russia and Sudan.

"This is their entry point into American culture," Eiswerth said. "They are assisting with the harvest, they are getting fresh produce to supplement their diets, they are engaging in English-language gatherings and other cultural-exchange activities."

By tapping into the agricultural roots of refugees, Iskashitaa aims not just to provide food, but also to empower those they’re helping. The organization relies heavily on volunteers and interns to run its program, which operates under the nonprofit umbrella of St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church. Eiswerth and her small staff also work with schools, community organizations and resettlement agencies in the area to reach refugees.

Although language and customs differ among refugees who end up at Iskashitaa's doorstep, the fruits and vegetables they pick and eat help bridge cultural barriers.

"Food is a common denominator for people," Eiswerth said.

In the beginning, Iskashitaa refugees and volunteers harvested some 2,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables that otherwise would have gone to waste, she said. Last year's harvest weighed in at 100,000 pounds, an amount Iskashitaa is working to double by year's end. Abubakar has done his part to help Iskashitaa reach its harvesting goals. He came here six years after fleeing Darfur in 2006. Before being admitted to the U.S., his family lived in a Kenya refugee camp. Two of his children were born there.

He started picking crops soon after arriving in Arizona, initially because like many refugees receiving government cash assistance, he was required to do community service. He has since landed a job working the overnight shift cleaning rooms at a local resort. In his spare time, Abubakar harvests everything from figs to mesquite pods and pecans to grape leaves.

"We are helping people," said Abubakar, who also encourages relatives and friends to join in the harvests. "Instead of staying home and doing nothing, I volunteer."

Abubakar is "an excellent example of how to build a network, to build bridges into the community through our programming," said Eiswerth, who met the refugee while distributing food to an English class he attended.

One of the schools Iskashitaa works closely with is Doolen Middle School, where Malini Chauhan advocates for the needs of refugee youths. She is an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer whose duties include distributing to the children some of the fruits and vegetables from Iskashitaa.

On a recent day, she stopped by Iskashitaa's headquarters in central Tucson to fill a couple of boxes with fresh pumpkin leaves, pomegranates and squashes.

"A lot of the families suffer from food insecurity, and Iskashitaa was looking for more ways to distribute food to refuge families," she says.

She takes the crates filled with freshly harvested produce to school and students pick favorite fruits and vegetables to take home to their families.

While it may be difficult for newly arrived refugees without jobs to subsist only on the public assistance they get, Chauhan said they also face another hurdle: finding the kind of food they eat in their adopted country. The diet of people from Burundi, for instance, includes pumpkin leaves that are hard to find at grocery stores here.

"Iskashitaa helps fill the gap," Chauhan added.

The group's work goes well beyond gleaning. Once crops are harvested, workers and volunteers distribute them to apartment complexes with refugee tenants. Iskashitaa provides seeds to boost the resources of refugees eager for a garden patch. Those who want to learn about food preservation can attend workshops on canning the fruit they harvest. If they grow their own produce or make traditional crafts, they get tips on selling the products.

At farmers markets and elsewhere, refugees give back by sharing what they know about foods that are out of mainstream U.S. culture.

At the pumpkin field, Chloe Sovinee-Dyroff, who recently started working as Iskashitaa's harvesting coordinator, said refugees have taught her that you can actually eat the parts of a pumpkin she used to consider inedible.

"I'm learning how to cook and prepare them, pumpkin leaves and pumpkin flowers," she said. "Different ethnic groups have different uses not just for pumpkins, but for other food sources. And so that's really cool, that exchange of knowledge."

Lourdes Medrano is a freelance journalist based in southern Arizona. Follow her on Twitter: @_lourdesmedrano