On Farms Across the U.S., Refugees Are Going Back to Their Roots

Refugees learn small-business skills and sustainable farming, resulting in an additional source of income and a small taste of home.

(Photo: Sandy Huffaker/IRC/Facebook)

Oct 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

This year, the U.S. will accept up to 70,000 refugees from around the world. But entry into the country doesn’t mean a sure shot at success. For a farmer from Africa, a regular nine-to-five job in a cubicle isn’t ideal.

That’s why, in 2009, the International Rescue Committee, a New York–based international NGO that brings aid and relief to refugees, started the New Roots program. IRC works with local municipalities in the U.S. to turn unused land into small-scale community farms where refugees can grow produce.

In 2013, the program took it a step further and created the MicroProducer Academy, funded by Chipotle’s Cultivate Foundation. Chipotle granted New Roots $200,000 to launch a school for refugees where they could learn practical skills toward turning farming into a small-business venture. In 2014, it renewed the grant, this time worth $500,000, to cover costs until 2016.

Aside from bringing African farmers closer to their agrarian roots, the program hits two key issues: fresh food for low-income refugee families and new avenues for livelihood.

“Displaced and often struggling to make ends meet, having a consistent supply of healthy, fresh food is vital,” says Aley Kent, technical adviser for New Roots. According to the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center, refugees who come to the U.S. are at an increased risk of chronic diseases such as obesity and hypertension owing to heavily processed low-cost food and lack of access to fresher options at affordable prices.

(Photo: Peter Biro/IRC/Facebook)

Classes at the academy cover everything from understanding the U.S. food system and sustainable farming techniques to food prep and marketing tactics for selling crops at markets and to restaurants. Since the academy's inception, 150 MicroProducers have graduated from the program.

New Roots maintains urban farms and community gardens in 22 cities around the U.S., while the MicroProducer Academy operates in eight cities: New York, Atlanta, Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Oakland, California, and Charlottesville, Virginia.

“New Roots is unique because it focuses on developing agricultural skills of refugees who had similar jobs in their home countries,” Kent says.

Take Albert Betoudji, who learned to fish and farm as a boy in Chad before having to flee his country’s civil war. He escaped to Burkina Faso with his family and lived there for 10 years before trying to reenter Chad. With a regime change in effect, conditions were risky. In 1994, he fled again—this time to the U.S.

Twenty years later, living in Salt Lake City, he is a U.S. citizen and one of the success stories of the MicroProducer Academy and the New Roots program, says Kent.

New Roots helped him build a sense of community, Betoudji says. “I share the food with my family, friends, and refugee customers.”

Betoudji has held a host of jobs, from a position at the U.S. Postal Service to his current job as a call-center service rep for French-speaking customers. But what he wants to do most is farm.

On his three-acre plot, provided by New Roots, Betoudji grows okra, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, and long beans, which he then sells at the New Roots farm stand in Salt Lake City. It’s not enough to make a full-time living yet, but he’s hopeful it will be.

He recently received a small-credit building loan through the IRC’s microenterprise program to buy farm-stand supplies. Last July, he had a stand at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market in Salt Lake, making him the first New Roots farmer to have his own booth at a city farmers market. To date, many of the other refugee farmers have sold their fruits and vegetables at New Roots farm stands.

That’s where Betoudji got his start and inspiration. At the New Roots Redwood Road Farm Stand in Salt Lake, he met a Sudanese customer who was buying amaranth greens. She said she hadn’t seen amaranth since she left Sudan. She told him that seeing the greens at the farm stand made her feel homesick and yet welcomed by the refugee farmers who were offering her a taste of home.

“Look, we make homesick into homecoming,” Betoudji said to his colleagues at the farm stand.

Encounters like these, he says, have made him want to return to farming even more: “Farming is the thread that ties together my life in Chad with the life here in Utah.”

While the New Roots program may not allow all refugee farmers to drop their day job for the field, Kent says it’s offering them an additional source of income and taking them back to their roots.