At the New Roots refugee farm, Annociate, a refugee from Burundi, communicates through sign language with Par, a Burmese refugee working the ground with her daughter.
Using their hands, they describe the crops they are cultivating at the West Valley City farm. While the women don’t share a common language, they share a common need. Uprooted from their countries, they are finding purpose, pride and persistence through gardening.
“These are women who would be very isolated at home — they don’t have many opportunities to interact with their environment,” said Supreet Gill, project coordinator at New Roots.
Nearly 25,000 refugees now live in Utah, with 97 percent living within Salt Lake County. While often experienced and educated in their home countries, they often find it difficult to use their skills in the states.
“Coming to the U.S., the language, the culture, everything is so new, and assimilating is so challenging on top of that,” Gill said. “All these doors are closed.”
New Roots is working hard to keep those doors open.
Through the efforts of Gill and Refugee Services Liaison Ze Min Xiao, the program seeks to provide refugees a place of comfort where their agrarian backgrounds are put to good use and they can provide a better, healthier life for their families.
“Giving them an opportunity to go out and do what they love to do is invaluable,” Xiao said. “It makes them feel like they are part of the community in a way nothing else really can.”
The program started as a way to provide for the community farmers but has since expanded to cover the entire Salt Lake community. Two years ago, New Roots provided more than 100 households with healthy produce. Last year, New Roots expanded to the People’s Market, local restaurants and grocers. The move expanded its outreach to 40 households a week and brought in more than $16,000 in direct sales.
Even greater expansion is yet to come. New Roots has partnered with the International Rescue Committee, receiving a three-year grant of $85,000 a year.
“Our hope is for our participants to gain the skills to go out and purchase their own lands and become the next generation of Utah’s small-scale farmers,” Xiao said. “It would expand the food landscape in Utah and provide different flavors that aren’t available anywhere else.”
The farm will begin selling directly to consumers again in June, with stands at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center on Saturdays and the People’s Market on Sundays.
At a glance
The Redwood Road Micro-Training Farm provides training to 20 farmers from countries as diverse as Sudan, Burma, Bhutan and Chad.
There are 60 plots available for Community Gardening at sites such as the 4th East Wasatch Community Garden and Sorenson Unity Garden.
The gardens focus on specialty crops used in traditional cooking by various refugee communities — such as bitter melon, Indian mustard or Thai eggplants.