Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

A case for rural refugee resettlement

Posted by Christopher Coen on September 3, 2012

Many refugees come to the US with farming skills and knowledge. A Liberian reverend in California is trying to convince refugee resettlement agencies to resettle refugees to rural areas, and away from urban locals with attendant low job prospects and high financial pressures (not to mention crime). An article at High Country News explains the case:

On a historic 50-acre ranch in Northern California, Cynnomih Tarlesson and her nine children drop watermelon seeds into the ground. Behind them, her father, Roosevelt, uses a tractor to churn up the dirt for tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant — along with some lesser-known crops, like the Tarlesson-named ‘Billy Goat Pepper,’ from the family’s native West Africa.

When war erupted in her Liberian hometown in 1990, Cynnomih and her family fled their farm and lived for over two years in the bush, foraging for berries, shoots and small fish. After several years in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, Cynnomih, now 43, finally received permission to come to the U.S. as a refugee, along with 25 younger siblings and children (biological and adopted). They joined her father, Rev. Roosevelt Tarlesson, in Vacaville, Calif., where he had lived since the 1970s.

Vacaville was a peaceful escape from the harsh refugee-camp life in Ivory Coast — plenty of food, friendly neighbors and teachers assisting their transition to U.S. life. Yet in this suburban environment, the family’s job prospects were low and financial pressures high. They missed farming; they missed the land. So in 2007, the Tarlessons secured a loan to buy property in nearby Guinda, population 254. ‘When refugees are brought to this country, they are put in cities, making minimum wage at factories. Why? They know how to farm. Let them farm!’ says Rev. Tarlesson, who’s pushing this idea with resettlement agencies at the national level.

In Liberia, the Tarlessons were subsistence farmers, but in Guinda, Rev. Tarlesson says, they hope to become ‘a major health food producer.’ They are already selling eggplant and peppers to a large Asian grocery in Vacaville and to a community-supported agriculture program in Oakland, and hope to expand to organic chicken.

The Tarlessons had to learn modern farming techniques, as well as irrigation and when to plant in a seasonal environment. (Cynnomih is earning a permaculture certificate from Woodland Community College.) Yet the family also relies on traditional Liberian agricultural practices, like transplanting crops and filtering soil by hand through a screen to get the best yield. Organic principles come naturally to the Tarlessons, who were used to farming without chemicals or crop manipulation… Read more here

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3 Responses to “A case for rural refugee resettlement”

  1. Dini said

    It makes a lot of sense.

  2. derrick333 said

    Why does the resettlement contractor have any say over this issue?

  3. Knowing said

    As someone who worked in refugee resettlement for years and advocated the same I can tell you it’s because the agency staff don’t want to live in rural areas. There are tons of jobs available in agri-business communities but the agencies maintain refugees must be settled in towns to be near social services. This isn’t wholly correct though because to the Mexican farmworker influx, most of the services (SNAP, WIC, TB Clinics) are already in rural communities.

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