These farms are helping refugees plant the seeds of a new life in America

These farms are helping refugees plant the seeds of a new life in America
Source: NFNA
Source: NFNA

On a farm in Burlington, Vermont, Rita Neopaney grows peppery daikon greens. Nearby on the 7.5-acre tract, you can find African eggplants, a tart variety that looks more like a green tomato than the typical deep purple nightshades, and Asian water spinach, with crunchy hollow stems perfect for holding sauce.

Since 2010, two years after emigrating to the United States from Bhutan, Neopaney, has been tending her plot on what she calls a "culturally significant community garden." She and some 100 other refugees are part of New Farms for New Americans, a program started by AALV, a Burlington-based social services organization for immigrants and refugees. The program is one among several around the country using farms, community gardens and fresh food to help new immigrants resettle and integrate into their new communities.

Located in Illinois, Colorado and other states that have received the 69,933 refugees who entered the United States last year, these programs enable immigrants — many of whom have agrarian backgrounds — to maintain a connection to their homelands by cultivating familiar foods on the land of their adopted country. At the same time, these refugees are helping to revitalize small-scale, community farming at a time when the nation's domestic farmers has steadily declined.

The Global Garden Farmer's Market in Chicago
Source: Facebook

New soil, new roots: In addition to the many challenges an immigrant faces, from language barriers to navigating new environments, refugees who were agricultural workers in their homelands are often seen as unskilled labor and end up at the bottom of the pay scale, according to Linda Seyler, director of the Global Garden Farm. Based in Chicago and serving about 100 refugee families, the 1.25-acre farm enables refugees to sell their organic produce at a local farmer's market or nearby restaurant, or just keep it themselves.

"They're really eager to start giving back and being contributing members [to the community]," Seyler said in a phone interview.

The programs can also help immigrants adjust to a new and unfamiliar food environment. "They have the habit of eating food that grew from the garden, and they want the same thing here," Neopaney said. When they're unable to find those familiar staples, many immigrants resort to frozen, canned and processed foods. Growing their own fresh produce "kind of gives them a buffer," Seyler said, enabling them to adapt to American cuisine while integrating their own.

Farmers weed a rice paddy in Vermont
Source: New Farms for New Americans/Facebook

The farms also encourage refugees to become more independent, said Denise Lines, founder of Growing Colorado Kids — especially women and young girls who come from countries where they're marginalized. For girls like Paw Moo, who moved with her family to Colorado from Thailand when she was 5, "they're carrying that sort of empowerment into their school lives," Lines said.

Now a freshman in high school, Moo is in her second year with the Growing Colorado Kids program, in which 20 or so refugee children learn about healthy eating by working in a local community garden. "The program helped me a lot in being a leader to a community," Moo said by phone. "And it also helped my parents because, from the produce, they didn't have to spend so much money on buying things at the grocery store."

Global Garden Farm is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, or RAPP, which was created in 2004 to fund similar farming programs, especially as increasingly fewer Americans are becoming farmers. "The push of it was to help refugees who wanted to become farmers move out to rural America ... [and] take over the farms," Yimeem Vu, RAPP Program Manager, said.

Growing Colorado Kids provides learning opportunities for refugee youth through organic farming.
Source: Growing Colorado Kids

Cultivating community: These farms provide more than just a space for bitter melons and other exotic foods to grow. Seyler calls her farm a "platform [for refugees] to interact with their neighbors in a really positive way." 

Student groups and volunteers often tour the farms to learn more about sustainable food and the various cultures of their neighbors. Immigrant families enjoy the ready availability of their favorite foods and share their traditional recipes with the neighborhood.

The cultural exchange happens within the refugee farming community as well, from sharing techniques and crops to the experiences that forced them to leave home. Alisha Laramee, a program specialist at New Farms for New Americans, says there are times when she'll hear five languages spoken at one time. 

"I think there's a common understanding of what everyone's been through," she said. "I believe social change happens by social interaction," Lines said. "Food is the all-equalizer. The breaking of bread together, the sharing of culture through something everyone does, which is: eat."