Tim Gaynor

Refugees pick their way to a new life in Arizona, one tree at a time

Tucson nonprofit program helps displaced people from around the world connect with the local community

TUCSON, Arizona — Sudanese farmer Khadija Abdulumah used to harvest guavas and mangoes on her land in Darfur, reaching up with a long pole to dislodge the ripened fruit.

Now a refugee picking up the threads of her life in southern Arizona, she raises a 9-foot rod attached to a basket to pluck unwanted grapefruit from a tree in a Tucson backyard.

"It's familiar to me … It feels just like back home," she said after she filled a plastic crate with the fruit, hoisted it onto her head and took to a pickup truck parked in the driveway.

Abdulumah was taking part in an innovative program that gives those fleeing conflict and persecution in Africa, Asia and the Middle East the chance to use their life skills to connect with their new home — all while providing them with nutritious food at no cost.

The Tucson-based Iskashitaa Refugee Network links displaced people from at least 30 countries with local volunteers to harvest 80 kinds of backyard fruit and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste, including citrus, dates, pomegranates, apples and squash.

Tons of grapefruit, lemons and calamansi limes are simply left to rot across metro Tucson this time of year, because homeowners are overwhelmed by the abundance on their doorstep or they view the trees as just decorative and ignore the fruit.

"Food is the one great universal, and it brings everyone together," said Melissa McCormick, the program and development director at the nonprofit, which harvests year round. "People can share food. Even if they don't share a language, people can share food. Even if they don't share a religion, people can share food." 

The founder and director of the group, Barbara Eiswerth, is an academic with expertise in arid land resource sciences. She started out recruiting refugee students in 2003 to take part in a project mapping locations of produce that was going to waste in Tucson, which they then harvested and redistributed. The name Iskashitaa comes from a Somali Bantu word that connotes working cooperatively.

‘Food is the one great universal, and it brings everyone together. People can share food. Even if they don’t share a language, people can share food. Even if they don’t share a religion, people can share food.’

Melissa McCormick

program director, Iskashitaa Refugee Network

From small beginnings a dozen years ago, Iskashitaa now gathers about 50 tons of unwanted produce annually in the Tucson area, which it shares with other organizations working with the food insecure. Participants can engage in other activities around food, including going to preservation workshops and selling produce, conserves, baked goods and some handicrafts at a farmers' market in the city.

Abdulumah and her family are among some 2.5 million people who fled Darfur's genocide, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since 2003, when rebel groups took up arms against the Sudanese government, which they accused of oppressing the region’s non-Arab population. The harvests reconnect them to a rural past in western Sudan they had to abandon a decade ago.

"It reminds me of how I used to pick fruit on my dad's plantation … I like how it feels," said Abdulumah's daughter Asha Adam, a regular volunteer for the backyard harvests who is studying at high school in Tucson and hopes one day to become a lawyer.

Since 1980, more than 73,000 refugees have been resettled in Arizona from more than 90 countries around the world, according to figures from the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

Another Iskashitaa regular is Bhutanese farmer Nandi Neopaney, one of more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese pushed out of the Himalayan kingdom in the 1990s under a policy of ethnic cleansing that left many struggling in the diaspora. The community's difficulty in adapting to life in the U.S. is reflected in a suicide rate nearly twice that of the general population, according to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Initially at a loss when he got to Arizona after spending 18 years in transit through Nepal, Neopaney began to find his feet only when he started to participate in harvests with Iskashitaa and later took a plot in a local community garden, where he grows tomatoes, cilantro and mustard greens to make gundruk, a Nepali dish.

"When he got here, he was all over the place. He didn't know what to do. Because his English was so minimal, he didn't understand what people were talking about. Iskashitaa helped [him] to stabilize and to get involved in gardening," said his son Tek Neopaney, who is a graduate student in Tucson and has a stronger command of spoken English than his father. Now he "seems so relaxed, because that is what he was doing back home, picking up fresh fruits and vegetables and tomatoes." 

Halima, a refugee from Darfur in western Sudan, with a grapefruit she picked from a tree in a Tucson backyard.
Tim Gaynor

Kathleen Newland, who leads refugee protection work at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington and is on the board of the International Rescue Committee, is familiar with other projects in California and Idaho that encourage refugees take part in community gardens. She felt Iskashitaa's harvesting activities were particularly relevant for refugees from rural areas.

"Being a refugee can be a very infantilizing experience when so much is out of your control and unfamiliar to you … To get people back in a setting where they know what to do is empowering," she said. "There's nonverbal communication that goes on around gardening and preparing food that I think seems to give people more confidence in the sense of belonging to the community, which is very important." 

With its offer of simple community involvement, the program has a broader appeal. Among those taking part in a recent harvest was Aminata Keita, a student who fled Côte d'Ivoire after a disputed presidential election in 2010 led to fighting between supporters of rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara.

She said she had no experience with farmwork. "I like it because I get a chance to meet different people and practice my English. And it's fun to be here," she said as she picked citrus fruit alongside refugees from Sudan and Nepal and volunteers from Tucson.

Ethiopian-born high school student Metasebyia Tefera, 15, volunteered at the organization's stall at St. Philip's Plaza Farmers Market in northern Tucson, where he sells loaves of traditional dabo bread that his mother, Yewbdar Tefera, bakes, alongside the citrus fruit, pecans and refugee-woven bags that Iskashitaa offers. "Coming here is important. You can interact with other people … Plus I get to help my mom. She took care of me when I was a kid, and I want to do something for her."

The nonprofit's activities have found supporters among the locals in Tucson — Arizona's second city, with over 1 million residents — among them, Trudy Duffy, a keen gardener who worked as a counselor at military bases.

"I love being outdoors. I love the exercise and activity. I love meeting different people from different cultures. And these refugees have just been marvelous to interact with," she said at a recent harvest, during which Abdulumah gave her tips on how to balance a box of grapefruit on her head and encouraged her as she took a few faltering steps.

Also taking part were Tucson-based interior designer Sherrelle Brown and her son Elijah, 9, whom she home-schools. Harvesting the food gave him a chance to learn a little bit about where food comes from and meet people from a variety of countries with different life experiences.

"That's crazy important," she said. "It's going to help him to learn geographically how it's a big world but at the same time, it's really not. And how we are all interconnected and the fact that we all affect each other and that, really, in order for us to survive, we have to eventually come together."

Iskashitaa has joined a community health center in Nogales, Mexico, a border city about an hour south of Tucson, to seek a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. If successful, Iskashitaa will train staff and volunteers in Nogales to map, gather and prepare food there. Eiswerth believes that the success Iskashitaa has had in Tucson could be applied throughout the United States, which has taken in more than 3 million refugees since 1975, according to the U.S. State Department.

"I suggest starting with pumpkins. There's a connection for many of the African and Bhutanese refugees to pumpkins, and that is they eat the leaves, the flowers, the seeds and the fruits," she said. "That's the seed you start with, because everybody [in America] has Halloween and there's a pumpkin patch and food waste across the country."

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