“The International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Program”: 2014 Finding Big Ideas Winning Essay

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By Jennifer Fei

This essay is one of two winning entries to the 2014 Finding Big Ideas Essay Contest. The other winner is Shrey Goel’s essay, “Rendering the Private Public: A Collective Approach to Slum Improvement.” Last year’s winners were Courtney Mullen’s essay “Belenpampa Clinic,” and Narissa Iqbal Allibhai’s “Young Artistic Leaders Rising from the Slum.”

Fei-Group 1The first New Roots program started in 2009 at the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) when a group of Somali Bantu refugees were resettled in a nearby suburb. When caseworkers and program managers realized that this particular group of refugees was having a difficult time adjusting and thriving to their new life in the United States, they asked what they could possibly do to make the transition easier. The Somali refugees replied that they were farmers, and would prefer to be close to the land in any way that could help bring them back to a life they once knew. A small community garden was established shortly thereafter to add an experiential component to the IRC’s resettlement services. Currently, the farm offers large market production beds, designated areas for users to compost, and even a place to participate in bee and chicken coop keeping.
Like most IRC refugee resettlement programs, the New Roots program is offered nationwide. Currently, 16 of the 22 IRC offices across the United States provide gardening and agricultural opportunities to those they assist. Shared goals of the program unite offices in one unified mission statement – to provide refugees with a safe gardening and food production space in which they can integrate their homeland expertise. Implementation depends on both the reality of and needs in the geographic location of the specific office. For instance, the needs and availability of resources such as land to start gardens and farms in Phoenix, Arizona differ greatly from the availability of land around the New York Regional Office. Despite this, a broad network of program managers and directors pull and share resources from one another to constantly work towards improving the various New Roots programs across the nation.
According to Kathleen McTigue, New Roots Program Manager at the IRC’s New York Regional Office, 50% of resettled refugees have some sort of agricultural background – be it through farming, food production, vending, or marketing – and thus have grown up with a sense of close relationship to their food. This makes sense – the majority of IRC refugee clients (excluding Iraqi and Afghani Special Immigrant Visas) come from conflict-torn regions of West Africa and Southeast Asia. When the Family Education coordinator started the New York Regional Office’s New Roots program in 2011, the IRC maintained one small garden bed at Drew Gardens in the Bronx, NY. Since then, the land rights licensing agreements have expanded the IRC’s gardening sites to two large plots at separate locations. Both locations are in the Bronx to maximize land area and proximity to low-income refugees whose first apartments, upon resettlement, are typically located in this borough.

The New Roots program works well for many reasons. First, refugees are able to apply agricultural knowledge and experiences from their home countries to their new lives in the United States. This empowerment is especially crucial in an environment where refugees may feel that their previous skills and work experiences are inadequate for the highly sanitized and industrialized job market in major cities. Exposure to green gardening spaces can also be a therapeutic and healing space for refugees who are experiencing post-traumatic stress and/or a general weakened state as a result of their move to the US, especially when moving to an overwhelming, hyper-urban metropolis such as New York City. The New Roots program also facilitates community integration – by establishing a physical space for refugees to work together on a plot of land. They are able to work alongside each other, take part in group decision-making processes, and have an equal voice in this space. Kathleen McTigue mentions that this type of work environment often differs from the more socially and politically oppressive communities that refugees, especially young women, may come from. There is a strong sense of dignity established for refugees who are empowered to take a physical space of land and challenge themselves to be productive with it. An economic development component also strengthens the validity of the New Roots program: if refugees are able to successfully grow fruits and vegetables, then they are able to reduce food spending at supermarkets and grocery stores. Furthermore, in some cities, New Roots participants are looking to expand beyond small-scale production to start their own farm businesses.

Fei-Aerial View CropWithin the IRC community, the New Roots program serves to foster cross-cultural understanding. Deciding what type of seeds to sow and for what purposes initiates multicultural dialogues about culture and cuisine from around the world, bridging the cultural differences that may exist between refugees. There is also much to be said about providing fresh food to refugees in need in low-income and economically disadvantaged situations, and about improving community health. Excess produce from the week’s harvest is washed and brought to the IRC office, where refugees can come by and take however much they need for their own nutritional benefit. This also helps refugees who are not yet adjusted enough to their new homes to be able to go to the grocery store in their neighborhood to access the food they need to survive in their initial weeks in the US.

From an economic empowerment perspective, the New Roots garden provides refugees with an option to take on an experiential learning opportunity. Working at the garden helps build resumes while re-familiarizing themselves with farming practices that may seem familiar in concept but differ in practice based on new terrain, norms, and climate conditions. Even though farming practices may share common fundamental features, the New Roots program  must also account for gaps in knowledge, experiences, and expectations between the refugees and the local American farmers and practices in their new cities. IRC Employment specialists, who are focused on career development assistance for refugees, are currently working in conjunction with Kathleen McTigue, the New Roots team, and employer partners in food-related industries to create an employment pipeline program through the New Roots program. Through this pipeline program, refugees’ experiences as farmers in the New Roots space can translate to meaningful professional development experiences for those who wish to work in the food services and/or production industries in the future. As a sort of guaranteed first job, the IRC hopes to build upon the New Roots program so that it may become a source of stable employment and skill-building necessary to navigate the experience-based needs of the US labor markets and employers.

McTigue’s main role as the sole Program Manager at the New York office, beyond simply maintaining the land, gardening upkeep, and community relations with the Department, is to conceptualize the impact of the New Roots program within the broader IRC resettlement services philosophy. She hires new interns and staff and researches initiatives that align with the goal of expanding the Program’s impact across national offices, and more specifically within the NY regional office specifically. With a Bachelors’ degree in International Development and Agricultural Economics, McTigue pulls from both her academic training and her experience in agriculture and NYC community gardening initiatives since she joined the IRC in May 2013. Beyond the garden’s direct impact, she has also worked on initiating the “Food Secure Resettlement” program within the IRC’s New York Regional Office’s core initial resettlement services that currently include housing, immigration, healthcare and employment access assistance.

McTigue’s vision incorporates the New Roots program into a broader nutrition education program within “Food Secure Resettlement” initiatives. As part of the IRC’s  overnight food amenities package provided to newly arrived refugees, McTigue asserts that a more culturally sensitive array of foods should be provided to better suit the tastes of the refugees during their initial days spent in their new homes. For instance, instead of offering American grocery staples including eggs, milk and bread to all refugees regardless of culture, McTigue has begun incorporating tea and rice as comforting and healthy food options for Southeast Asian refugees who arrive and are resettled through the IRC. “Unfamiliarity with a new place breeds vulnerability,” she explained. “Within the parameters of the Overnight Food budget, small changes can go a long way for refugees who are seeking familiarity in their new lives and homes.” McTigue’s work implies that nutrition education for refugees should be regarded as just as important as other core services in the resettlement process, prioritized on the same level as finding appropriate housing, employment and healthcare. For instance, McTigue has designed grocery store orientations and planned open-air farmers’ market outings to show refugees where they can access fresh food in their area. Federally funded Food Stamp and WIC check programs are also accepted at these vendors, which help weaken the barriers to access to affordable nutrition in the United States.

Community gardening is not a new concept and can be found consistently in major cities and metropolitan zones; New York City is no exception. Municipal and state governments in Boston, Atlanta, and Idaho, have established community gardens and farm networks for refugees and new immigrants. What makes the New Roots program in particular a Big Idea is its contextualization within a broader framework of the US refugee resettlement process as conceptualized by a large international non-profit. Despite the global scale on which IRC operates, the tangible community aspect of a community garden is certainly achieved through the geographically tailored New Roots program. During a visit to the Bronx New Roots Community Garden this past July for a World Refugee Day celebration, I was able to witness the children frolicking throughout the garden space, and families gathering to enjoy the production of their dedicated collective labor. At the office, refugees regularly express their joy in receiving fresh green onions, basil, kale, and root vegetables with which to cook dinner for their family. Based on McTigue’s observations of consistent attendance, engagement with the land, and the quality of their food production output every week as seen at the office, refugees from primarily farming backgrounds exhibit enthusiasm and diligence on the job at the garden.

The IRC’s institutional reach across its 22 U.S. offices certainly facilitates its ability to expand the New Roots program to other cities and areas within the nation. The community gardening work model would need to be further evaluated for cross- cultural applicability should international expansion become a goal for the New Roots program. However, by nature of it being a program to help refugees adjust to the new terrain of the United States, it makes more sense for the New Roots program to stay and develop its reach and program features domestically. Program managers like Kathleen McTigue could then focus on strengthening the core and peripheral elements of the New Roots program, including the gardens themselves, nutrition-based education, and initial resettlement resources and employment networks that are provided to supplement the New Roots Program farmers. This comprehensive approach to newly resettled refugees’ social and economic empowerment has truly been the key to the New Roots Program’s success thus far, and will certainly serve the initiative’s positive impact well into the future.