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Gardens of Refuge

By June 28, 2024No Comments

Recent immigrants preserve their food cultures while putting down new roots

WORDS | Lisa Archer PHOTOS | Jesse Feldberg

Deo Rai is feeding her chickens. It’s early spring and the young hens are running about the garden, scratching up small clouds of dust and the remainder of last season’s vegetation. We are standing in one of her many garden plots at a New Roots community garden — a stretch of some eight acres, four under cultivation — bordering Azalea Park in Charlottesville. Moores Creek winds its way in front of us, marking the edge of the garden and the beginning of the park. A rooster crows impatiently in the corner of the plot, and, as I look more closely at the birds, some appear quite scrawny. “Those aren’t young, they’re old. The man I bought [the hens] from thought I wanted meat chickens,” Rai explains to me, with the assistance of Theresa Allan, manager of the New Roots program.

Allan is translating for myself and Rai: Allan speaking in Hindi, Rai in Nepali. Both are using a mix of English (at the time of our interview, we were unable to find a Nepali translator who could meet in person) and though some words and idioms are lost, we are able to understand one another.

Rai, originally from Bhutan, came to Charlottseville from Nepal in 2014 with her husband and two children. “I like to garden. Before, when we lived in Nepal and Bhutan, my father farmed the land: corn, rice, vegetables, ginger, turmeric. We had chickens, goats, ducks …” she tells me, as we walk across her fields discussing what she will grow in the upcoming season. Rai joined the New Roots Program in 2016.

“We gave a workshop last week on how to keep chickens. We are currently working with a UVA architecture class. Students and gardeners are working together to design chicken coops as a project,” Allan explains as we duck under the low roof that protects the hens from raptors and racoons. Ideally, the coops the students design will be modular, in the event the gardeners have to switch plots, and can also have a roof catchment for water, as water access is another struggle the community gardens face.

This project, and others like it, are just some of the many ways the New Roots Program of the International Relief Coalition (IRC) assists immigrants and refugees in the Charlottesville area.

The IRC is a global humanitarian aid and relief organization that responds to world humanitarian crises, like the crisis in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine. Currently, the IRC works in 40 countries and has offices in 26 cities across the U.S. “A lot of IRC work is on the ground,” Allan explains. “Crisis intervention; short term work. The resettlement offices [such as the one in Charlottesville] are an opportunity for some longer-term support. Food security being top among them.”

“A lot of people coming in have agrarian backgrounds, and want to have access to land, but generally they are settled in cities where there isn’t a lot of land,” says Allan. This is where New Roots steps in. In 2009, the program started putting raised beds outside of refugee apartments. This worked for a short time, but then tenants and the program had to contend with landlords concerned about the potential unsightliness of the beds or perceived exploitation of utilities. So, New Roots sought an alternative, raising money and applying for grants to establish urban agriculture gardening programs throughout the Charlottesville area.  It took a little over seven years to build up the infrastructure, and now the program is in its eleventh season of established community gardens. This season, some sixty families will be growing food in New Roots gardens.

“Food security doesn’t mean just having enough calories, but [also] being able to find the types of food that you want to eat, so they’re trying to grow things you can’t get at an American grocery market: the traditional crops that are grown in their homelands and are part of their culture,” says Allan. “By having access to those foods, they are able to maintain their culture through their food ways, and are able to teach their children their culture as well.”

Not only does New Roots provide refugees an outlet for maintaining their food culture, it helps share those cultures with the greater Charlottesville area. In 2016, New Roots launched the Micro-Producer Academy — training participants in how to grow to meet commercial food safety standards in the U.S. After completing the program, the growers were connected to local chefs in the area.

“There is a tremendous amount of care and love that they put into their food, and that’s kind of the same way, you know, that I like to cook, so it’s really been a great match to try and help one another out,” says Chef Adam Spaar of Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar. “It felt really good to be doing something that benefited the community, where I could see it helping people that needed it.”

Orzo was one of the first restaurants to purchase from the micro-producers, and is an avid supporter. “In the beginning, there was a ton of produce I hadn’t had access to before. They brought rattlesnake beans, Kermit eggplants, bitter melon, purple long beans … even dahlia tubers, which I had never tried before. They grow a bunch of different things that hadn’t been available to me from farmers in Virginia,” says Spaar.

“It touches so close to the foundation of what we are trying to build here,” says Emerson Ross, head chef at Tonic. “Anything we can do to keep our money in the community and assist other people as they try and build their own business is something we focus on.”

Chefs place orders via text messaging, as it is the easiest way to communicate when there may be a language barrier. At the end of each season, the chefs, growers, and New Roots program coordinators debrief, discussing what grew well and what chefs could purchase more of if it were made available. For example, the producer that sells to Orzo now grows more Mediterranean-style crops that fall in line with the menu: arugula, Chioggia beets, and kale.

The pandemic halted the Micro-Producer Academy, but New Roots still trains micro-producers, and since the pandemic, a new opportunity has been presented to growers: The Farmers Market at IX.

“It’s such a great place for a start-up business, as an incubator, because being a vendor at the farmer’s market is a low-cost entry level,” says Cecile Gorham, executive director of Market Central.

New Roots provides the tent and has a collective booth; anyone that has a plot in the community gardens may utilize it, even if it is only one time. A grower may have an overabundance of tomatoes or cucumbers and sell at the market just one week, or a grower like Rai may be at the market every week. The cost of the market stall is divided between whoever sells that day. In addition to the growers, volunteers help man the stall every Saturday during the growing season.

“It’s really good both ways. It’s good for the person trying to support themselves and it’s good for the community to see new vegetables and to see people working for themselves, that’s empowering,” says Gorham.

In many cultures, the market is a place to shop, not just for a few specialty items, but as your weekly grocery supply. Markets are a place of social gathering. In short, they build community. Providing the structural support for recent immigrants and refugees to participate in and sell at markets helps them find a place in their new community. The foundations of all markets are as public spaces, to create a place where all feel welcome.

“It was great to see the variety of things people would bring that were, you know, outside the normal American palate,” says volunteer Malcolm Augat. “Bitter melon, for example — just seeing people get exposed to other cultures in that way, where we can chat about what is this, how are you going to use this, is there any cultural significance to it, is really rewarding.”

It’s not just the general public that is learning to identify and utilize the produce found at the New Roots stall; it’s professionals, too. Beloved Charlottesville restaurant Lampo is also a supporter of the New Roots program. During the previous growing season, chef Mitchell Bereens purchased produce weekly, sometimes several times a week.

“Last year, the big one was the pumpkin blossoms. I came up with a pizza on the spot, put it on our social media and it just blew up, exploded,” recalls Bereens.

It became so popular that Bereens was selling 5-10 times more of the blossom pizza than anything else on the menu. The producers were able to grow more, and the pizza stayed on the menu for the majority of the summer (look for the pizza’s return this season as soon as the squash begin to blossom).

Other sellers at IX are already quite familiar with New Roots. Khadija Hemmati — owner of the popular Khadija’s Kitchen — immigrated to the U.S. in the fall of 2016, joining her mother and sisters in Charlottesville.

“It was really helpful when I moved here. You know, when you move here from your original country to the United States, everybody here is busy with their life … so even though I had my mom and I had my sisters, they had their own jobs, their citizenship classes or GED classes, but everyone would farm or garden together,” says Hemmati. “For me, and even for my kids, we didn’t have many activities. We didn’t know the language, so we couldn’t go out as much and talk to other people. But with New Roots, it was stress relieving. We’d even have picnics when we farmed with the kids; it was almost like camping! We really enjoyed it.”

Hemmati first worked at a dining hall at UVA. There, Muslim students started asking her if she could prepare them halal meals, since they had trouble finding the ingredients themselves. “Here it’s very expensive and hard to buy halal items such as meat. So I go to either Richmond or Alexandria,” Hemmati says. She would make the drive to Richmond on her day off to purchase supplies and then prepare meals for students. Word quickly spread across the university, and soon her catering business flourished.

You can now find Hemmati every Saturday at IX Market. There, too, you’ll find Laziz Produce, her sister and mother’s business. Between working her full-time job, being a single mother to five young children, studying for her GED and citizenship classes, driving to Richmond on Sundays and selling at IX on Saturdays, Hemmati no longer has time to garden, but she still gets produce from her mother and sisters.

Refugees face many challenges. There are the obvious ones, such as language barriers, fear of further persecution from the places they’ve fled, worry over whether they will feel welcome and safe in their new communities … there are also the challenges that many of us who have never faced this hardship may not even be aware of. The long, arduous process it takes to gain citizenship in this country (Hemmati has been here for six years and is still in the process, and it took Deo Rai seven years); the struggle to find housing, to get a driver’s license. Rai and her husband only have one vehicle, so he drops her off at the garden on his way to work and she works there until he takes his lunch break (to take public transportation would be a two-hour commute both ways). Washing and storage of the produce once it is harvested is also an issue for Rai. When you’re working land that may not be available to you the following season, it comes down to not having proper infrastructure. Wash sinks and cold storage aren’t an option in the community gardens, so before Rai can sell at market, she must first transport home all of the produce, washing and bundling it in her kitchen and storing it alongside her family’s groceries.

Organizations dedicated to helping these refugees rebuild their lives must also contend with these struggles. For New Roots, chief among them is long-term land use. “It’s ironic that people who have been displaced their whole life, and have never had access to their own land in their own country, come here, and then every two years they have to change to a new vacant lot because someone wants to come in and develop it,” says Allan. Having to constantly uproot themselves can be a potential repeat trauma to growers.

Land in urban areas is hard to find, and even harder to acquire, unless you are using it for development. A potential solution would be to find land in partnership with the city and lease it for long-term land tenure use. New Roots partnered with other non-profits under the Food Justice Network to have the city adopt a food equity initiative. They worked with the city to rewrite its comprehensive plan, including urban agriculture language in every chapter and thus laying the policy groundwork to hopefully have a more secure urban agricultural environment in Charlottesville.

For example, if a park has a lacrosse field, or an apartment complex builds a playground, why can’t a garden be included as well? “We’re arguing [that] gardening is just as much an outdoor recreation as soccer … a shade tree can have apples on it,” says Allan. “Let’s have gardening become part of our urban culture here in Charlottesville.”

It can be easy to feel removed from the atrocities that happen around the world. It makes sense to want to feel removed from them. We can read about them in the news, retweet inspirational quotes, and donate our money to an organization. Maybe some of us call our legislators or attend rallies. But there are so many small ways we can support one another at the local level, and programs such as New Roots pave a clear path for us. Frequent local ethnic restaurants, and those that purchase from refugee producers. Visit farmers markets and purchase unfamiliar produce. Volunteer with literacy groups, or if you have a certain skill, see how you might share it with others, particularly with organizations that support marginalized groups. Ask your cities for urban gardens and for better modes of transportation. Everyone deserves a home, food, and a community, and it falls to all of us to make that a reality for all our neighbors.

This article first appeared in our 2022 Summer Issue.

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