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Settling Into New Roots

By Shannon Mathews

What is an office? Is it merely a place to do work, to access files, to hold appointments? Or is it more similar to a small village of different skills and knowledge, working toward one permeating goal?

I'll confess, I was a bit intimidated when first arriving at the International Rescue Committee office in Charlottesville to start my AMI Senior Fellowship after coming from the mountains of Highland.  Then I reminded myself this isn't about being in the same environment I've been in already. It's about bringing qualities and experiences from that world to life in new settings to be made useful for everyone involved and seeing the underlying similarities in all environments. It's also….not about me.

I saw rather quickly what makes up this particular office is the close community of such dedicated, compassionate people working together to assist the many, many refugees coming to settle in Charlottesville, from all parts of the world.  Our small team of 20 people at IRC Charlottesville is there for most of the varying parts of a family’s resettlement process into the United States - from meeting them at the airport to finding them their new home, giving them their first meal to helping clients find their first job in the United States. IRC aids families in getting acquainted with our healthcare system as well as how to navigate the U.S.'s distinct food system, which is right where I fall in with the New Roots program.

Newly arriving clients attend a class on basic nutrition in the U.S.

Food security starts right in the beginning with IRC's housing coordinator making sure families are being resettled in homes within walking distance of a grocery store and starting them off with a few days’ worth of nutritious, culturally appropriate foods when they first arrive. As part of a cultural orientation week, we do a nutrition education piece at New Roots that provides information for new arrivals about basic nutrition in the US, where to find healthier and more diverse foods, how to navigate a grocery store, save money, and use benefits like SNAP.

The rest of the New Roots Program, and what I've been spending more of my time working on, is somewhat like a second tier to a refugee's food secure resettlement. Once a family is sheltered, someone within the family is employed, and getting more acquainted with American culture they can choose to take part in the New Roots gardening or farm program.

The farm program (aka Micro-producer Program) is more of a business training for growing vegetables to sell at the market and developing skills to start their own ‘small-grower’ business. Many of the refugees coming to Charlottesville are coming from agricultural backgrounds and have a lot of experience farming or gardening in places like Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Myanmar. We are here not exactly to teach anyone how to grow food but rather, how to obtain the means to do it successfully in this area, how to adapt their agricultural knowledge to a new culture, and to build upon skills that can develop eventual self-sufficiency and economic independence. 

First Market Day in Meade Park in 2014

The gardening program is a bit different in that it is not about growing to sell. New Roots gardening helps to provide clients with land access in community gardens around the city to grow food to feed themselves and their families.  It's also, just as importantly, a way of integrating into the surrounding community and getting to know the neighborhood by coming together as a group for events or to learn different gardening techniques from each other, and to have that sense of agency over a piece of land.

Some of the gardeners with Brooke (the New Roots Coordinator) at IRC’s 4th Street Garden

My role in all of this, I’ve been realizing, is first to figure out my role - the most fitting one possible that will benefit the people participating in this program. I don’t mean wandering around not knowing what to do with myself until I’ve figured out this perfect function, but rather keeping that intention of pertinence in mind with every action and during all of the planning we’ve been working on for the season. It was tempting to start a position as a Garden Coordinator with the desire to fulfill some creative agenda of my own ideals about the way this year should go if I plan correctly, before even knowing the gardeners I will work with. But that style doesn’t always allow for fluidity which is what growth is, especially when it is based on this unique group of people - and people are never static. This program is evolving every day into something different than a year ago or a week ago so there is plenty of room for naturally occurring creativity. And our roles in these gardeners’ lives are only as good as our relationship with that growing, changing process and how we adapt to the varying needs of the people.

So, what is it these particular gardeners need most out of a coordinator? Is it seeds and materials, guidance and skill sharing, community connections and leadership development? Or is it simplicity, the straightforwardness and authenticity that comes with growing your own food? We shall see. In the mean time I will plan for all of the above, because spring will be here...any second now.

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