To the untrained eye, the people working the soil in the New Roots community garden on the campus of Laney College in Oakland, CA may look quite ordinary. But if you inquire further, you will learn that gardening is actually a gateway into a new life.
The one eighth of an acre vegetable patch is a project of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that works in 40 countries around the world to assist people forced to flee their homelands. Thousands of refugees arrive in California each year, many of them in the Oakland area. If they are very lucky they may end up under the guidance of Zack Reidman, the program coordinator at the New Roots Garden.
Photographs by J. P. Dobrin.
Above: Formerly a resident of the East Coast, Reidman has been working in urban horticulture in Oakland for several years. He was drawn to the plight of refugees because he says they often come from farming areas but have to settle in cities where they have little or no access to land on which to grow things.
Above: The 15 gardeners, from such distant and troubled places as Burma and Bhutan, work together to grow the ingredients used to make favorite dishes from home. Many have agrarian backgrounds and tend to be skilled gardeners but they are unfamiliar with the northern California climate. Reidman teaches them the rudiments, and in the process they also learn English and create a community of like-minded people.
Above: Fridays are harvest days. Anyone who works in the garden on Friday gets a share of whatever is picked. Often there is a picnic with dishes made from last week’s bounty.
Above: Excess produce is sold to a CSA or at a farmers’ market. The entrepreneurial side of farming is something Reidman would like to develop so the gardeners can contribute earnings as well as healthy food to their households.
Above: The garden began last April and is now in winter mode, which in Oakland means cool weather crops including lettuce, brassicaceae–such as cauliflower and broccoli–and the New Roots garden’s most prolific crop, mustard greens.
Above: Everything is grown from seed, and decisions about what to grow are made by the gardeners themselves, although sometimes it proves impossible to get seeds for plants that are unknown here in the US.
For Zack Reidman, the joy of working at New Roots is seeing both the crops and the gardeners thrive. As he says, it is the very basic joys of life that are being cultivated–the celebration of and sharing of food as well as a community spirit that nurtures the newcomers and helps to ease their way into life in America.
For further reading on gardening in Oakland, CA check out A Simple Garden In Oakland.