It was only in America, where he and his wife arrived as refugees in 2009, that Gurung, now 36, found a piece of what he had lost all those years ago.
As the sun rose last week over a small square of land in Riverdale, he raked the ground to prepare it for planting.
“I have a deep memory of this,” said Gurung, whose closely cropped black hair is flecked with gray. Standing barefoot in the dark soil made him feel far away from the camp’s pervasive hopelessness. “That’s why I come here.”
“Here” is one of 17 gardens in nine cities across the United States that have sprung up through New Roots, a program developed by the International Rescue Committee to help refugees reconnect with the land.
“A lot of their skills are not recognized — they are really undervalued — especially farming,” said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC’s Baltimore office. “On a small scale, it’s giving people a little bit of an opportunity to grow food for their salad, but on a larger scale, it’s an opportunity for people to grow and build a space with what they have.”
The IRC resettles about 7,000 refugees each year, around 1,000 in the Washington-Baltimore area. Many come from agrarian backgrounds but have been cut off from farming by war, ethnic cleansing or other upheavals. In the United States, they often end up living in apartments in low-income urban areas known as “food deserts,” where the most easily accessible foods are highly processed and loaded with salt and high-fructose corn syrup. Many develop problems with obesity and diabetes.
New Roots began in San Diego in 2009, two years after a group of Somali Bantu refugees asked an IRC representative if they could grow their own food. Working with local partners, the program has spread to New York, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Dallas, Charlottesville and Boise, Idaho, in addition to the sites in Baltimore and Riverdale, which came on board this year and last year, respectively. Also, an urban farm will open soon in Pinole, Calif.
More than 400refugees participate, allowing them to trim their grocery costs and, in some cases, sell their food at farmers markets or to local restaurants and stores.
In almost all the cities New Roots serves, there are more would-be farmers than land to offer them, and this week the organization is launching a new campaign to raise awareness and funding in order to expand.
“I’m hoping by 2015 we can grow a million pounds of food a year, which would more than triple our current production,” said Ellee Igoe, technical adviser for food and agriculture for the IRC’s U.S. Programs.