Imagine escaping from your farm in a war-riven part of Africa or Asia. You arrive in the U.S. What a relief! But you’ve replaced farming with asphalt and concrete of a U.S. city. Bewilderment, shock, all over again.
To help refugee farmers adjust, the International Rescue Committee started an urban farm in San Diego. It hired Amy Lint, then 31, to get New Roots Community Farm up and running.
She was a good choice — San Diego is home to many refugees from Cambodia and Somalia, and Lint knew rural Cambodia from her graduate work, and had been an aid worker with the Somali Bantu.
New Roots farm has thrived. It’s gone from five acres to 80, worked by 90 families, mainly from Cambodia, Somalia, Latin America and Burma. Lint’s work has been recognized by Michele Obama’s Let’s Move campaign with a visit from the First Lady herself.
Now, after almost four years at New Roots, Lint has a new plant of her own. She’s founded Grow Strong, a non-profit organization focused on sustainable farming and recording traditional knowledge in Kenya.
Lint first went to Kenya in 2001 as a Peace Corps volunteer. While there, she fell in love with and married a Kenyan farmer and beekeeper, Malaki Obado. Since then, they’ve lived in the U.S., Cambodia, and the U.S. again. They’ve used fund-raisers to start Grow Strong. Lint sat down with Jill Richardson in San Diego the day before she, Obado and their toddlers, aged 1 and 3, left for a new life in rural Kenya.
LatitudeNews: Tell us how you got started with New Roots Community Farm?
Amy Lint: The International Rescue Committee had a grant to provide an urban space to start farming. Sort of like a community garden, only the plots were a lot bigger. A lot of the (refugees) had come from agrarian societies. This was a potential opportunity to not just garden but farm, as a business, as a livelihood.
LN: What was the importance of that as opposed to just having a job for money and then going to the grocery store?
AL: When (refugees) come over here, they feel that it’s a relief leaving war-torn countries. And slowly it turns out to be another nightmare for them. A lot of people don’t speak English, they don’t read or write, and living on a monthly budget is a challenge for everybody. They are used to farming or in the refugee camps being given a small ration of food to survive on. So many people become a bit depressed that America is not the dream that they thought it was.
The garden was an escape. And growing food helps their monthly budget. And, East Africans eat green leafy vegetables every day. Their diets change living here in the United States. They eat cheap stuff. Macaroni, enriched pastas, potatoes, canned meat goods. Meat is cheaper than green kale so people started eating a lot more meats.
LN: Did you see any health effects on this population?
AL: Oh yeah. A friend, Hamadi, lost at least 30 pounds when he started working in the garden. Also, back home, they know what they are good at and how to do it. They know how the systems work and what’s helpful and what’s not helpful Here, the language piece really separates them from feeling like they are functioning in the U.S. They can’t speak to anybody else and they look different. And they don’t know how to be helpful..
LN: So the garden gives them a way to contribute?
AL: Yeah, so the garden not only gave them a way to contribute but gave them a way to shine. Americans were flocking to the garden to learn skills around farming. Refugees need to be taught English, how to go to a shopping market, how to drive a car, all these different things. And it wears down on your self-esteem. At the garden they were becoming teachers to Americans… So the tables were turning.
It did the same thing with their children. Young children are able to adapt to this culture a lot easier. As soon as they adopt the language and they are literate, they end up opening bills. So the SDG&E [San Diego Gas & Electric] bill comes and they are the ones opening it and reading it. And their mother doesn’t understand how the bill – what it’s saying or if there’s any action that needs to be taken, by when. She can’t read any of that. She’s relying on the children to provide all of that for her. That wears down on the child, that’s like, “my mother, she’s no good, she can’t even read our bills.” Respect seems to dwindle. From the garden, when the mothers were in the newspaper, or on the TV, or meeting Michelle Obama, now their children were like, “Wow, I am proud of my mom. She’s someone to be proud about.”
LN: That’s incredible. But you’ve decided to leave this.
AL: It’s extremely rewarding work. But over the last five years, we’ve realized that I think we have what it takes to go back to Kenya and start our own organization. We are investing into that project now, working with farmers to help them succeed in a poor area with insufficient rainfall and a high rate of HIV/AIDS. The best approach that we see possible around traditional knowledge that’s slowly disappearing around food and farming and make sure that’s captured before it disappears. So we gotta go and make sure that this information is well-documented and available for the youth to access.
This isn’t the last you’ll see of Amy Lint. Latitude News will follow her work in Kenya, and keep you posted.