Bronx Farm Helps Refugees Put Down Roots

New Roots Community Farm in Concourse Village, Bronx

In March, 2015, Lwin Lwin and Mohammed Haron arrived at JFK airport from Burma as two of approximately 150 refugees the International Rescue Committee (IRC) would resettle in New York City over the course of the year. Despite existing family ties to the city — the federal government requires one such link for resettlement in extra-expensive locales like New York and San Francisco — the learning curve of the metropolis would be steep. How to use a MetroCard, navigate a grocery store, and access public benefits — all while trying to surmount a language barrier?

The IRC, which works in 40 countries and 26 US cities, helps displaced persons get established in their new homes. Abroad, the organization also serves refugee camps and responds to emergencies, whether man-made, as in Syria, or prompted by natural disasters, as in Haiti. In the US, resettlement is also paired with programs to support the wider immigrant population, some of whom may be refugees in all but name.

To foster the development of metaphorical roots, the IRC has turned to the cultivation of literal ones. In the Concourse Village neighborhood of the Bronx, a plot of land once taken by the NYC Department of Transportation to build a bridge to Melrose over Metro North tracks has instead grown into the New Roots Community Farm, a garden serving refugees, local community members, and the palates of broader New York.

Kathleen McTigue (far left) runs the IRC’s New Roots program through which she worked with two Burmese refugees, Lwin Lwin (second from right) and Mohammed Haron (third from right).

Denise Santiago, a Bronx local, gardener, and member of the New Roots Leadership Committee, was a long-time window-boxer before stumbling on the garden and taking control of her own four-by-eight-foot plot. Here, she’s seen the many benefits that such a space, open to the experimentation and fiddling of many, can bring: potlucks to share food, multi-generational and cross-cultural exchanges of recipes and best practices, fresh strawberries and full meals, a connection with seasons, and the joy of a summer night in the garden complete with music and dance.

For Lwin and Haron, the garden provides even more: a locale for English as a Second Language classes based on bonds beyond language forged through labor and food, a platform for training that has led them to jobs in the city’s burgeoning artisanal production scene, room to cultivate the bitter melon they enjoy cooking, and, perhaps most crucially, the happiness that they continually emphasized when I met them last week.

Here, Kathleen McTigue — the program manager of New Roots at the IRC, a veteran of New York’s urban farming landscape, and the force behind the farm’s flowering from “moonscape” into a lush community space vibrating with bees — lays out the many roles of the farm and its crucial place in the refugee resettlement process.


Jonathan Tarleton: Tell me about the work of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York and how New Roots fits into it.
Kathleen McTigue: Our refugee resettlement work includes everything from meeting refugee clients at the airport, setting them up with housing, helping them look for employment, and getting them enrolled in school and other programs. Then we have English language tutoring, college and career readiness programs, residency and citizenship services, and cultural orientation classes. Those teach all the tools for success in New York City.

New Roots started in San Diego in 2007 when a group of Somali Bantu women who were struggling in traditional employment told the local office that they were farmers and could best be supported with land. That was an eye-opening moment for the IRC. Many of our refugee clients have agricultural backgrounds, even if they weren’t farmers. We recognized food as something that can be understood and connected to, regardless of language. Everybody eats. You also can’t advance in anything if you don’t have your basic nutritional needs met. During the growing season, people are taking home a considerable amount of high quality food, but there’s so much more to the farm than that production.

What does the job-training program involve?
Some of our larger resettlement cities, like Salt Lake City or Phoenix, have more land within or just outside city limits that can be used for farming, so getting refugee clients into farming businesses is a viable trajectory. That’s not the case in New York City, even though there are many more greening and farming groups here than there were 15 years ago. And because the city is expensive, getting refugee clients jobs is the first priority in putting them on the path for economic sustainability.

Graphic by Allison Henry

For us, the farm is a center of training. Through hands-on farming, our participants learn that somebody’s counting on them for timeliness and following through on what they said they would do. People start to identify the strengths and weaknesses of team members and are able to step up and support people when they need it. That, and knowing how to be part of a diverse team, is really important to overall employability.

I worked with Lwin and Haron for three months. Haron’s English is really limited, but on the farm we didn’t necessarily need a broad vocabulary. He built a concrete paver wall for new planting beds with another participant in the project. When we had a workday with a corporate group that came to volunteer, Haron led them in building another such wall. It was very impressive to see his confidence and his ability to teach and demonstrate something hands-on without being stopped by language barriers.

We want to impart those tangible skills, but also to give people exposure to opportunities that may exist in the future, for employment or just for themselves. There’s so much of refugee life that’s reactive — you get approved for status, you get to the United States, you have to get a job. They arrive at JFK, and for a long time they just know their house and the IRC office. Then they know their house, this office, and their job, and they run in that triangle for a while. The program provides a space for them to be proactive and think ahead through more structured goal-setting. Even if those dreams don’t happen now or maybe never come to fruition, it’s a nice opportunity to articulate in what direction you’d like to see your life go.

As part of the job-training program, we drove upstate to a three-acre farm owned by former urban farmers from the Bronx. It’s an easier jump to show that progression than to go to a 50-acre farm that’s been in operation for ten generations. Even just leaving the city is huge. When we were crossing the George Washington Bridge to the Palisades, it occurred to me that they may have never left the city before or crossed the Hudson. There was a general sigh at the farm of, “Yes, I can connect with this.”

Lwin and Haron now both have jobs with an artisanal sauce-maker based out of the old Pfizer building in Brooklyn. The hope is that they can graduate onto other positions and other businesses and one day maybe even start their own.

Is the farm intended to play a role in a broader approach to mental health?
On other IRC offices’ farms, that’s starting to be more of a focus. We don’t have that direct theme in our New York program, but it does extend across all of the different programming that we do. The farm provides a safe space, whether you’re a refugee, new to the city, or a longtime New Yorker. Being there allows you to be with your family, use your body, and not worry about all the other things, whether it’s the stress of a job or, for our refugee clients, any trauma they might bring here.

Kathleen McTigue and Denise Santiago

You mentioned the links between community members and the IRC clients who work at the farm — does the farm serve to both integrate these individuals into New York and help the outside community accept those who are being resettled here?
The Bronx is already so diverse that I don’t think anybody necessarily has a problem accepting new and different populations. To me it’s more about educating people on what the refugee process is.

This is obviously very much in the news right now, and it’s important for us to be a conduit of information to help the broader community understand why people are coming, what the vetting process looks like, why people are granted refugee status, and why they might have access to certain benefits right when they get here.

People are also generally happy to meet people from countries different from your typical New York immigrant populations. Gardeners from the community are especially excited about anything grown that is different, or a new use for something they already know.

I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know people ate sweet potato leaves prior to working on the farm. Of course, once I heard about it, it showed up everywhere. We also had people growing bitter melon, which is, as its name describes, really super bitter and hard to cook and prepare well. I’ve seen people take something out of their bed and put it in the compost bin, then other people run over to get it because it’s something they can eat. There’s that level of sharing and building skills, and the interchange usually happens on a specific food and vegetable level rather than through a broader cultural exchange.

And how do you think the farm affects the wider neighborhood?
There are always what we call “fence people” that come and hang out outside, and we tell them to come on in. Everyone seems to have a story about the parking garage, carwash, hardware store, and elevator factory that were here before, but are also really excited about this space. A guy in the fall came and said “I worked for decades in the elevator factory that was on that corner … and this looks much better than that building ever did.” About the carwash I’ve heard, “Oh yeah, I used to come here with my dad on Saturdays. You know he had his Cadillac …”

I think the farm gives the older people in the community an opportunity to come out and have another space. And because we have a large space, we can have community members, IRC clients, students from the many schools surrounding the farm, and people from outside organizations on-site without interfering with each other while creating the opportunity for interaction. We end up with people from so many backgrounds: our IRC clients are predominantly Burmese and Iraqi. We’ve got ESL students from French-speaking African countries. Local gardeners are predominantly of Puerto Rican descent, and then there’s West Indians, Guyanese, Chinese, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and many, many more.

It’s amazing for me to be here. Each year we take an aerial shot from an outdoor patio across the street. When we first started it looked like a moon surface — completely lacking in organic soil matter, really compacted, lots of small stones. Now it’s so abundant. We saw a goldfinch last year. There’s a hawk that lives nearby and comes to hang out. Our native, flowering plants attract so many pollinators: four or five different species of butterfly, praying mantises. Last year the whole area was vibrating with bumblebees and our honeybees. It’s cool. What were they doing before the garden was here?

Honey produced by the New Roots Community Farm’s honey bees.

Kathleen McTigue is the program manager of New Roots at the International Rescue Committee.

Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Kathleen McTigue and the International Rescue Committee.

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