Many of the refugees who settle in the United States come from places of conflict and extreme poverty. Few have learned to read and write in English. Their skills are tailored to the situation in their homeland. Among the Bhutanese, Congolese, Burundi, Nepali and Somali communities, the skill these refugees have best honed is farming.
In an interview with the NY Times, Somali Ibrahim Sawarah Dehab says, “In America, you need experience.” Without the training to take up work in a drastically different society, and without the language resources to learn, refugees have difficulty supporting themselves and their families.
However, subsistence farming can have financial benefits for those who practice it. The surplus of many small farms sell for $5,000 to $50,000 dollars annually.
Subsistence farming is not a final solution for the economic hardship refugees face. Certainly, the revenues are inadequate for a family. But farming has other benefits besides finances, including fresh vegetables, fruit and meat.
Fast food is the cheapest source of calories in the U.S. Poor families must often sustain themselves on the grease and preservative-soaked contents of the restaurant dollar menus. By growing their own produce, however, refugee families provide themselves with nutritious meals at virtually no monetary cost.
Farms provide psychological benefits as well. Uprooted from their homes, refugees are perhaps more in need of a community than most. Language barriers, combined with jarring cultural differences, severely limit the connections they can make.
If they settle in refugee communities, the opportunity to find people with similar experiences and languages skyrockets. This is much better on joint farms, where resettled people can work together growing and herding. These farms foster a sense of purpose in the farmers. In order to sell, they have to venture out, establishing a presence and becoming familiar with the greater community.
Getting would-be farmers on their feet falls to organizations like the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots and New Land Farms programs. The latter was founded in 2008 as a branch of the Lutheran Social Services group of New England. The organization funds community gardens in Westfield, Springfield, West Springfield and Worcester, where refugees–most from Iraq, Burundi and Bhutan–can grow produce for their families.
Refugees who want to farm alone or communally have their choice of plots from two different New Land Farm sites. They are given seeds, equipment and everything necessary to begin planting. Those who would like to work in agriculture but have no farm experience are trained.
Subsistence farming among refugees speeds the process of integration. According Dehab, now owner of a successful meat farm, “In America, you need experience, and my experience is goats.”
– Olivia Kostreva