Storytelling Spotlight: International Rescue Committee

This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: International Rescue Committee, Austin, TX. Story and photos by David Hanson.

There are no FM radio stations when driving up the Pauma Valley from California’s Interstate 15. The straggly ends of the Sierra Nevada Mountains make for a choppy landscape. Creeks are full of round, sand-colored granite boulders, but no water. It’s desert, but there’s water somewhere; the hills are green with pines and oaks. And orange groves dominate the valley bottoms. Even the massive Casino Pala with its two mall-sized parking decks, giant windowless casino room, and hulking block of a hotel leaves the roadside scene as fast as it enters it. Then you’re once again driving on the winding road through the deep green, slightly tan landscape of arid foothills.

This is remote for southern California. It’s quiet. Roosters crow. Birds chirp. A few cars drive by. The International Rescue Committee’s Pauma Valley farm began here in 2012 on what was a defunct non-profit center.
Bilal drives an hour to the farm most days of the week since he works with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as a leader of the Somali-Bantu group of refugee immigrants that arrived to San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood between 2004 and 2006. For Bilal, the drive is not ideal, but considering what it took to get him to America and then to a job on a farm, an hour driving his Honda Odyssey mini-van is nothing.

Like most of the Bantu people who have arrived to the US, Bilal had to leave his small village when the rebels arrived. They fled immediately, so immediately that Bilal’s mom was separated from her only child. Bilal walked 375 miles to Kenya where he was placed in one refugee camp, while his mom went to another. Bilal lived for almost ten years in the camp, and he wasn’t reunited with his mother until the year he was finally sent to America. They had only seven months to spend together then Bilal took the ticket to San Diego.

The IRC meets refugees like Bilal at the airport. The fleeing men and women often know of IRC from their presence in the refugee camps. The IRC works with over 10,000 refugees each year. They help the new arrivals, who often come from ethnic groups that are marginalized in their home countries (ie, little to no school, minimal job opportunities and training) to a somewhat similar status in the US. They rarely know English, much less the cultural nuances of our fast-paced, urban, materialistic, capitalistic day-to-day existence. 

But they bring amazing assets. Go into most new immigrant communities in the US – Burundi, Somali Bantu, Burmese Karen, Ugandan – and often you’ll discover former food deserts transformed into small-business hubs serving the immediate community: produce stands, meat shops, corner stores with spices and vegetables we’ve never seen in our American groceries.

And most of the immigrants can farm. Bilal had looked down on farming in his home village. It wasn’t a cool thing to do. The Bantu were farmers and their ethnicity was shunned and persecuted so farming was not seen in the best light. Similar, perhaps, to some quickly eroding perceptions of farmers in America. When Bilal, like many refugees, arrived to America, he immediately missed not only his family and friends left behind, but the land. “Farmer” was not on the job opportunities list for most refugee job placement programs that offer airport, hospitality, and low-end food service positions. 

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David Hanson