New Roots is Planting Seeds of Change for Refugees in America


    Guest post by Kimberly Bryant

    Gardening has myriad benefits, including re-connecting with nature. Photo by Kimberly Bryant.

    What difference can a garden make? To newly arrived refugees in America, the answer is plenty. It’s no secret that gardening is a pleasant way for the average person to get in touch with nature, but it holds an even deeper meaning for those living far away from their homeland. While organizations like the IRC (International Rescue Committee) are dedicated to helping refugees adjust to their new lives in America, re-building a life somewhere new is no easy feat.

    Many refugees are without their families, living in a foreign environment; this is understandably a challenging experience, both emotionally and mentally. Fortunately, initiatives such as IRC’s New Roots program are using gardens as a way for refugees to re-connect with the earth, and themselves. Since its 2005 inception, New Roots has been helping refugees — many of whom were farmers back in their home countries — plant new roots.


    With many refugees coming from countries like Burma, Cambodia, and Cameroon, the program offers a space in which they can engage in an activity they know by heart — gardening. They grow fresh produce to eat, and sell if they choose. Much like the idea behind Refutrees, New Roots’ urban gardens re-ignite spirits while providing a sustainable living.

    The program was initially inspired by refugees from Somalia nearly a decade ago. The group had been farmers back home who wanted once again to feel connected with nature. After sourcing a vacant lot, IRC turned it into a nutrient-rich garden full of fresh food from different cultures.

    A sense of connection with one’s homeland is also re-affirmed through the gardens. Angele, a refugee from Cameroon, chose to plant African peanuts, something she used to grow in her village with her grandma. For others, the garden provides a sense of calm during an otherwise difficult time. Some refugees haven’t seen their children for many years; gardening helps soothe this pain.

    A program coordinator for New Roots explains the challenges that exist for the refugees newly arrived in America: “Most of them have endured horrible situations. The majority have been displaced, forced to flee their homes.” And yet, despite the challenges facing newly arrived refugees, the positive effect of gardening has been undeniable: “I can see on their faces that it has a calming effect just walking into the gardens.”

    Weekly trips to the gardens not only allow refugees to grow their own fresh produce, but also to embrace their native culture through food production and cooking — and share recipes from their respective cultures. As Yusef, a refugee from Sudan says, “When I come into the garden, I change my life.”

    Kimberly Bryant is a Canadian photographer and writer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She holds a degree in Visual Arts from the University of British Columbia, specializing in digital art and printmaking. With interests in film, travel, and visual anthropology, her passion for creative expression shapes who she is and how she interacts with the world. Blog post originally published on the Ignite Channel.


    1. What a wonderful story this is – almost makes you feel that maybe there IS still hope for humanity, if we can do things like this for others. Thanks so much for sharing this, Kimberly.

    2. Really appreciated this article. The notion of “laying down plant roots” is a common one. Consider that when the British were colonizing countries throughout the world centuries ago, their “transplants” would built gardens to remind them of home. Rudyard Kipling (a Brit transplanted in India) wrote at length on the sense of connection with one’s homeland being re-affirmed through gardens. This sense of connection to one’s homeland is also evidenced in wartime gardens that soldiers created behind battle lines in Europe during WW1.

    3. I took a tour of the New Roots community garden in City Heights San Diego last year. The gardeners are awesome. Even in winter every square inch is productive. The IRC staff said that when the garden first started they thought maybe they should offer gardening classes to the clients but realized right away they were dealing with people who absolutely knew what they were doing.

      If you are in San Diego you can get a weekly farm share from New Roots, it’s a good deal, good variety, and flavor and freshness of course over the top!


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