As different varieties of ethnic crops push up through the soil reaching for the sun, gentle and knowledgeable hands care for the tender plants as they attempt to thrive in an unfamiliar habitat.
As refugees flee their countries in staggering numbers, resettlement programs are turning toward a way of life that overcomes cultural and language barriers everywhere — agriculture. The plants, like their caretakers, have left their native land to break new soil in Utah in hopes of a fresh start at a new life. This is a trying time of a new culture, new customs and, in many cases, a new language.
“It’s a strong bridge from a known place,” said Jordan Bryant, the manager of the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program that partners refugees with farming experiences in Salt Lake City. “Before they came here, they came with that farming background and knowledge. It’s a way to apply that when they first live here. There are so many things that are unfamiliar and unknown that it creates kind of a bridge during that transition time.”
These programs often take the shape of community gardens and, in the case of the IRC, a 5-acre plot of land that 33 farmers share to cultivate crops and gain a profit. These agricultural startups all have something in common — they were requested by the refugees themselves.
“Families asked for it,” said Nelda Ault-Dyslin, one of the founders of the Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection in Logan, Utah, who has been with the organization’s community garden since its start. “Almost all of them live in apartments. As I would go to their homes I would see people trying to grow things in pots outside their door and they didn’t have a lot of room. ... I didn’t know it would be so popular with so many families.”
The refugee farmers have more to offer than just their knowledge and experience. A lot of the farmers raise crops native to their homeland and some even sell them to local restaurants and schools as a profitable business.
“In a new community I think it has quite a few benefits to feeling like they are contributing, that they are able to make money off something that they know very well,” said Natalie El-Deiry, deputy director at the IRC. “We’re not teaching them how to farm here, they’re teaching us as much as we’re teaching them.”
Crops aren’t the only outlet refugees have for their expertise. The East African Goat Project is another program by the IRC which allows for refugees, including youth, to gain revenue by renting out goats to landowners for grazing and weed management. Goat meat is also sold commercially through the program.
“The goat is part of our life,” said Gustave Deogratiasi, the goat project herdsman and Burundi native. “In my country many people raised the goat there so the goat is easy to raise and also to get the meat from the goat. That’s why we raise some goats.”
The herd of about 330 goats, located near the Salt Lake City International Airport, serves the Burundi, Somali Bajuni and Somali Bantu communities in Salt Lake City. According to Nysse Wilson, the Goat Project AmeriCorps VISTA representative, the goat project not only allows three refugee communities to put down new roots, but also to keep in touch with their old roots and keep their culture alive in a new place.
“I think for me the most rewarding thing is working with these three communities... and seeing these youth connect with a specific part of their heritage they may not have otherwise been able to connect with now that they’re living here in the U.S.,” Wilson said.
For Deogratiasi, the project lets him connect with his home country and pass the culture onto others who work on the project.
“When you go there to where we live, the view is like back in our country and the kids are really happy to be there all the time,” Deogratiasi said. “Also the big key is to make those three communities grow together. That is the one thing that makes me really happy.”
These projects are much more than growing product and making a profit, although those benefits are welcome. Farming has also been able to help refugees adapt to a new culture, grow a new community and heal.
“There’s the psychosocial benefit to people who have come from more war-torn countries, or have experienced quite a bit of trauma and displacement,” El-Deiry said. “There’s something very therapeutic to having your own piece of land and digging your hands in the soil and growing food that feeds your family and feeds the community where you’ve made your home now, and then they’re also building community for themselves.
According to El-Deiry, the farm is a place where refugees of all countries come together and bond over labor and a shared purpose of creating a successful operation.
“The farm is a very lively, very engaging place,” El-Deiry said. “There are people of all ethnicities that are great together and working side by side with each other and I think there’s something to be said for having a sense of place and a sense of community that comes from it.”
Some families are separated during the relocation process and take years to get back together in one place. Ault-Dyslin describes a family that was relocated all throughout the western United States before gathering in Logan, Utah, after seven years. This family is now one of the core families that works at the community garden.
“I know that first year when we started the garden it was really cool to see families get to know each other again and connect with each other in the garden. I think that’s the greatest benefit,” Ault-Dyslin said. “Just being able to provide a space where people can relax and do something they know how to do and be around just their families because really, in my opinion, refugee resettlement is about families.”
Not all families in the communities are refugees. The farmers also involve buyers and volunteers who do not share the same background experiences, but share the same passion for the industry.
“In Utah, this is a place where lots of people know about gardening and lots of people have been gardening for a long time,” Ault-Dyslin said. “I would like the general public to know this is a really good opportunity for you to connect with a refugee because often they have the same stories. If people were able to connect over gardening I think that would be a really valuable opportunity that people might not have thought of when they’re thinking about refugees.”
Agriculture is a universal language, and one that may bridge the gap between refugees and the rest of the community as newcomers are resettled and put down new roots in a very literal way.
“We’re able to educate the larger community about refugees and refugee issues just by building partnerships with school districts and restaurants we’re working with and some of the grocers,” El-Deiry said. “It’s more important than ever that people understand refugee backgrounds and why it’s important and critical that we continue to welcome people to this country because they add so much to the fabric of our community.”
Information regarding these programs and volunteer opportunities can be found by contacting the IRC through email at SaltLakeCity@rescue.org.