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Refugee Farmers Plant New Roots in US

  • June Soh

More than half of the refugees who are resettled in the U.S. each year come from agricultural backgrounds. And they are bringing valuable farming skills as they rebuild their lives in their new communities.

Every Thursday morning, Dhan Subba and other refugee farmers clean and sort a variety of vegetables they have just harvested.

“I like to work on the farm because I can grow my own food and eat healthy,” said Subba.

The Bhutanese refugee lived in a camp in Nepal for 18 years before he was admitted to the U.S. six years ago.

“I am glad that I can use the skills that I got from farming in Nepal and I am being able to apply them here,” he added.

Subba and other refugees from all over the world are participating in the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program. The program, which uses vacant lots in urban areas for small-scale farming, started 10 years ago in San Diego, California. It has since spread to more than 20 cities across the country, including Charlottesville, Virginia, where Brooke Ray is manager of IRC Charlottesville.

“New Roots really has a lot of different parts. First and foremost, it's 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. Now, we have almost nine acres (3.5 hectares) all over the city," said Ray.

These farmers grow a wide variety of produce-- some of which are common back home but unfamiliar in American grocery stores.

As part of its New Roots program, IRC also offers the Micro Producer Academy, where refugees can learn sustainable farming and small business skills, resulting in an additional source of income.

"What we do there is take the skills and knowledge that everybody has and talk about how to apply it to the U.S.. A lot of people have grown on very big space, and here you have to grow on very small space. We also talk about marketing, and pricing, and the seasons in the U.S.," said Ray.

The refugees sell their produce directly to local restaurants. Local chefs like Adams Spaar say the product is high quality.

“Their produce is exceptional. You can tell that they spend a lot of time, a lot of care, a lot of love goes into whatever they grow,” said Spaar.

They also transform empty lots like this one into vibrant weekly market where low income neighbors, especially refugees, can buy fresh produce at affordable prices. But they are not the only customers.

“I come every week. The vegetables are beautiful and freshly picked. I have lots of recipes to use for them, and the prices are extremely reasonable,” said Jane Ray, one of the many locals who come to the market.

The refugees may not be able to quit their jobs to farm full-time, Brooke Ray said, but the program is helping them build strong roots in their new communities.

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