Turning a New Leaf

by Elizabeth Winslow • Photography by Thomas Winslow

What would you do if you found yourself suddenly uprooted from everyone and everything you know, far from home and family, in a new land with an unfamiliar culture and a language not your own? Thousands of refugees arrive in the United States every day under just such conditions—and adjusting to a new home is more difficult than anyone who hasn’t done it can possibly imagine. 

In 2009, two Liberian refugees in Austin, Johnson Doe and Paul Tiah, wanted to create a long-term support network for refugees being resettled here. They met Meg Erskine at the Caritas of Austin Community Advocacy Program and Sarah Stranahan at an African Society of Austin meeting. Erskine and Stranahan, who were both involved with refugee services, also had a desire to provide a longer-term support network for refugees, and the four began talking about what they could do together. Their conversations grew and evolved into the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC), which now provides both long-term community and educational support to the hundreds of refugees resettled to Austin each year from Africa, Asia and Cuba.

MRC currently offers classes in English as a second language, computer literacy and career development, and also organizes a sewing group and a Global Kids Club. But it’s the gardening program that offers the greatest opportunity for program participants to feel the most rooted in their new community.

At the same time that MRC was coming together, a new community garden—Festival Beach Community Garden—was under development. Since refugees had been asking for a place to grow food, Erskine went to Austin’s Sustainable Food Policy Board to ask about the potential for partnership. Community leadership at Festival Beach granted MRC some scholarship plots; these went quickly, with many people ending up on a waiting list. Currently, there are 24 plots in the MRC section at Festival Beach, with three gardeners growing in scholarship plots in the larger community garden section. MRC gardeners grow food to feed their families—supplementing insufficient food benefits with fresh, healthy produce and focusing on crops of familiar foods from home, many varieties that are difficult to find in the U.S.

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Because the plots at Festival Beach filled up quickly and because transportation to the community garden is challenging from the apartment complexes in North Austin where many of the MRC participants live, MRC Garden Program Manager Lindsey Hutchison began looking for space to expand the program closer to the MRC community center.

A contact in the MRC network knew a garden was being developed at nearby Lanier High School. The students there, together with Julia Ricicar, the Future Farmers of America coordinator at the school, had put together a grant aimed at developing a school garden that addressed food access needs for the surrounding community. MRC was a perfect match—its gardeners could immediately provide strong support and participation with a minimum of outreach and coordination from the group at Lanier. Now, 13 plots are being worked by MRC gardeners alongside the student plots; participants also tend a flock of chickens for eggs, manage beehives and raise rabbits and pigs. Plans are underway for construction of a shade structure, terraced garden plots to create more space for growing food and bee habitat gardens to support the hives.

Aside from simply providing connections to land where food can be grown, Hutchison continues to grow the programming in what’s now called the MRC New Leaf Refugee Agriculture Program. She meets with the gardeners every other Saturday—bringing them resources they need and helping them plan for the changing seasons and how to adapt their skills to the growing seasons and conditions in Central Texas. She has recently added monthly educational workshops to the program—offering in-depth knowledge of a particular topic, such as seed-saving, water conservation and organic growing practices—followed by the opportunity for further hands-on, guided practice the next month. In June and July, the gardeners learned about seed-saving with Tim Miller, local dry-land farming guru and owner of Millberg Farm. Miller demonstrated saving seeds from cucumbers and tomatoes using a quick fermentation method in water—a very different technique than Bhutanese gardeners had used in their homeland, where they dried the seeds within the fruit. The gardeners enjoyed leaving the city limits for the day and connecting with a large-scale grower, being out in the fields and feasting on freshly harvested figs and tomatoes.

The MRC Farm Link program—a pilot project in partnership with Green Gate Farms—offers gardeners another opportunity to get out in the field. There, they participate in a work-share program—harvesting crops, planting seedlings and working in the greenhouses—in exchange for a box of fresh, seasonal produce from the farm. This enables them to supplement what their garden plots produce, connect with new friends in Austin and learn from experienced farmers.

In all, 55 people engage in the MRC gardening program, and 150 people are fed by the gardens. We visited the gardens at Lanier on an early fall day. The gardeners were busy tending late-season okra and eggplant and sharing ideas for what to plant for winter. Everyone was excited about cooler-season crops—especially mustard greens, a favorite of gardeners from many different countries. Bees buzzed lazily around us as the shadows grew longer. As we watched people from the community walking on the nearby track and heard kids laughing and hollering from the basketball court, gardeners gathered the day’s harvest from their plots and the sun began to settle lower on the peaceful scene. I asked Dilli, a gardener from Bhutan, why the MRC gardening program was important to him. He smiled and said “Finally, I can think about myself again.”