International Rescue Committee

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. 

But Bilal became the de-facto community leader of the Bantu. So he spoke with the elders, mostly women since many of the men were killed or stayed behind. The consensus was that the Somali people needed to farm, to involve their children in agriculture, and to have access to healthy food.

130226 WHY SoCal IRC PaumaValley 089At about the same time Bilal was meeting with the elders and figuring out ways to improve their community’s situation in San Diego, the IRC was taking over a USDA’s Community Food Project (CFP) grant that had been intended for a farmer’s market begun by a community development corporation. The market had failed, but with two years left on the grant money, the USDA told the organization to find a different use for the funds. So the CDC asked the IRC, who had subcontracted on the farmers market attempt, to take on the funds and take them in a new direction.

The first thing IRC of San Diego did was ask Bilal what the Somali-Bantu people needed. Bilal said land, a farm, food-growing resources.

So San Diego got an indoctrination in urban farming. Of course, urban farming had spread throughout the city for decades, but never on a formal, permitted scale. IRC and the Somali-Bantu essentially rewrote the policy around urban agriculture on their way to starting the New Roots Community Farm on two acres of the most densely urban district in the city. The Bantu began growing for their families and soon other refugees joined. It became, as so many community farms do, especially for refugee populations, that essential shared space and reconnection to land and their agricultural traditions.

As the farm took shape over a few years, the regeneration of the agricultural roots for the refugees grew stronger and more widespread. The IRC started the City Heights farmers market in the refugee community. But the energy moved onto the national scale within IRC. They began a new roots farm in Phoenix, then Salt Lake City, and they now have fourteen nationwide. It’s part of an expansive view toward the refugee communities. IRC knows that it can’t just focus on the refugees, but rather must think systemically and address entire communities.

The urban farmers market has become a tell-tale sign of gentrification and increased costs of living. In City Heights, the IRC didn’t want to deter neighbors from the produce being sold at high-end prices. So they implemented food stamp swipe machines and offered matching incentives for food stamp purchases at the market. They don’t brandish the certified “organic” brand that often translates to “expensive” for some people. And they have little price inflation. A bundle of greens can cost $1. The mission was to provide nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate food to the community.

130226 WHY SoCal IRC PaumaValley 126But they also had community growers like Bilal who wanted to be farmers and make money doing what they did best. So they needed more land. Thanks to subsequent grants, including a second CFP, the IRC of San Diego was able to secure twenty acres in the Pauma Valley. They designed a program to incubate small business farmers who want to grow on a working production scale.

It’s pretty simple. The different ethnic groups – Burmese, Somali (the seven “Bantu Mamas”), Ugandan, Iraqi – have separate plots. They have their own tools and they share the washing and packing station. IRC helps market for the City Heights farmers market, where some sell, and also coordinates the CSA and restaurant partnerships.

The whole thing is young and growing. Forty new small business farmers will join the crew this April, taking a shot at making a business out of growing healthy food. The IRC says they’ve been approached by Chipotle to provide produce to the popular food chain. And that’s where the refugee farm comes full circle. As Bilal describes it, a major push behind having a farm for most of the Bantu was to connect with the land again, and be able to produce something that could support their community.

There’s an amazing, and somewhat un-American sense of keeping things small, growing food for the families in their neighborhood, that seems to motivate refugee farms. To call that quaint would be taking an American view where the success of business relies on the ability to scale up. So Chipotle might look like a big contract, a great new account. A boon for the business. But then the food wouldn’t be staying in the Bantu community. It’s hard to say whether that’s what they want.  


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