Taking Root: Nonprofits Help Refugees Create New Lives through Farming

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July 25, 2016; KHOU-TV and Portland Press Herald

More than half of the refugees who are resettled in the U.S. each year come from agricultural backgrounds. A movement has grown in their wake to help them incorporate their farming skills into their new lives and the communities where they live. With slightly different missions and approaches, nonprofits have surfaced across the U.S. to ensure refugees have jobs or simply food on the table. And, in most cases, they offer up fresh local fruits and vegetables in exchange.

  • The International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) New Roots program uses vacant lots in urban areas for small-scale farming. It started in San Diego 10 years ago and is now in 20 different cities. Brooke Ray, manager of IRC Charlottesville, says, “First and foremost, [New Roots] is a chance for people to use the skills that they’ve already had in gardening and farming. But it’s also a chance for people to meet their neighbors and interact with the community and bring home healthy food.”
  • Growing Colorado Kids, a Denver-based nonprofit, helps refugee children feed their families while also nourishing their development. The kids do work on the farm and learn other hands-on skills related to farming, but the real goal is to build community as they learn other life skills, like speaking English, with their peers. They also get to take the fresh produce they’ve harvested home. All of the children in the program qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches at school. In the summer, when their families have to provide three meals a day, this program literally puts (healthy) food on the table.
  • Plant It Forward brings agriculture to Houston, one of the nation’s largest cities, while serving as a small business incubator for refugees. With various farm sites throughout the city, the organization trains refugees on organic urban farming and running their own ag businesses. Each farmer completes a yearlong program and then receives their own micro-farm to grow and sell their produce. The produce is sold at farmers markets, through CSAs (community-supported agriculture), at the farm itself, and to restaurants.

The federal government is also sowing programs like these. Less than two months ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $1 million in grants to teach refugees how to farm. The first project was awarded to Global Gardens, a Boise, Idaho-based organization that teaches refugees about organic farming and community gardening. Currently, Global Gardens has nine community gardens serving 200 refugee families—primarily from Africa, but also other countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Uzbekistan. Ultimately, the organization’s goal is to create sustainable, profitable, independent small farm businesses for these refugees.

Plant It Forward’s Roy Nlemba fled the Democratic Republic of Congo due to political strife and now runs a half-acre plot in the heart of Houston. He told KHOU News, “In a big city like this, I’m doing, I’m planting. People, they coming to see me. I’m very happy.”—Angie Wierzbicki