IRC Refugees Plant 'New Roots' in the Bronx

The day is sunny, warm and from the window of the Seventh Avenue Express Train, racing above the Bronx, only two clouds dot the sky. Compared to the morning and evening rushes, the train just shy of 11 o’clock is empty. Four International Rescue Committee (IRC) employees are accompanying three refugees to Drew Gardens and the group half populates the car. A few stops before arriving at their destination, West Farms Station, IRC New Roots Coordinator Jennifer Plewka stands and offers to explain the subway map to the refugees. Two were resettled from Burma and arrived in New York just last week.

For almost 80 years, the IRC has been responding to humanitarian crises around the globe, critically supporting communities in need, whether they’re affected by natural disaster or war. The organization provides everything from clean drinking water to vaccines to therapeutic counseling. Repeatedly, it has been praised not only for the humanity of its work, but also the efficiency. For every dollar the IRC spends, more than 90 cents directly benefits refugees and societies in struggle.

The three refugees on their way to Drew Gardens—like thousands of others taken under the wing of the IRC—are beginning their journey, as the organization puts it, “from harm to home.” Of course, unlike the commute from the Manhattan Resettlement Office to the Bronx community garden, it’s not nearly a simple path, and no one paints it that way.

Director of Entertainment Relations Sandee Borgman called it an “uphill battle,” especially since the nation is all but wallpapered in rosy images of the American Dream. While the IRC invaluably supports the refugees, from picking them up at the airport to stocking their fridge to helping them secure employment, governmental financial support ends in six months. And beyond trying to succeed in a country crawling its way out of a recession, they additionally face language barriers and cultural differences. The U.S. government legally welcomes them into the country. But if someone comes from a rural background, an ocean away, how does a bustling city like San Diego or New York begin to feel like home?

To the IRC program called New Roots, the answer lies in the soil of a community garden. Now operating in 22 U.S. cities, New Roots connects refugees with local gardens to provide access to (otherwise inaccessible or unaffordable) fresh, nutritious food. Moreover, the gardens link the refugees to both their past culture and new community, and even offer extra financial support via farmers markets and food companies. So it seems, dirt, seeds, and water provide as many lifestyle benefits as they do flowers and crops.

The New Roots program came to New York in April of 2011 and currently has one operating and one developing garden. The former, Drew Gardens, is a community garden in the Bronx: two-and-half acres of organic, almost entirely self-sustainable farming. Every Thursday, refugees gather at the Resettlement Office and travel there together. They spend, on average, about four hours working in either a communal or personal plot, and at the end of the day they walk out with as much produce as they can carry.

According to Borgman, the place is “an oasis. It’s a beautiful oasis to begin with,” she said, “but it’s an emotional oasis, as well.” For those who come from agrarian backgrounds, Drew Gardens is a familiar sanctuary amongst strange skyscrapers.

“We want to empower people,” said Borgman. “If you empower them, it’s their project and their program, and then it’ll last longer. There’s ownership there. So, we did that in the Bronx. Everyone was saying, ‘It’d be so great if we could just plant our own food.’” With New Roots, that's exactly what the refugees get to do.

And in more ways than one. Not only are they planting produce that they can take home to their families (one zucchini from Drew Gardens went on to feed no less than 10 people), but vegetables, fruits, and herbs that uniquely hail from their homelands.

Ethnic markets, step aside. Inside Drew Gardens is such an extraordinary cultural mix of ingredients that even when acclaimed Chef David Burke visited, he was stumped by what he saw.  There’s papalo, a pungent herb akin to cilantro, popular in Mexican cooking, bitter melon, a spiky fruit known to be particularly beneficial to diabetics, and purple and green shiso, an Asian herb that one would find in stores for 10 cents a leaf. A refugee from Cameroon is currently growing African peanuts.

Like Drew Gardens in late August, the program is thriving in myriad ways. Refugees are picking produce from the ground and taking it to their kitchens, feeding their families a wholesome and healthy diet. They’re applying the farming skills from their backgrounds and harvesting additional wealth through the market. A group of farmers in San Diego is even selling their mint to a national granola bar company.

Beyond all that, though, handing the refugees the key to a community garden seems to open a different world, one more familiar and less foreign, one where they can make their own way and go from "resettling" to just settling.

Said Lisa Brochet, IRC New Roots Manager, “When you ask them what the garden makes them think of—the word they always say is ‘home.’”

Photos: Emma Laperruque