Every month, USDA shares the story of a woman in agriculture who is leading the industry and helping other women succeed along the way. In honor of World Refugee Day, this month we hear from Josepha Ntakirutimana, a refugee from Rwanda who settled in Tucson, Arizona in 2013. Josepha is now an invaluable part of the Tucson New Roots Program which brings together refugees and their community around production and nutrition education activities.
Josepha’s journey to Tucson is a long one – as for any refugee, the memories are sometimes painful. When she was a girl, at the age of 12, Josepha started helping her mom at a local farm before school. Later, she worked on a farm during school holidays and, when she was married, her family had a small plot in town where they could grow vegetables and grains to help reduce food costs. After the war, when she left Rwanda and entered into a refugee camp in Malawi, agriculture continued to help her and her family survive. There wasn’t enough food but she was able to start a garden and grew amaranth, squash, and carrots. Being able to carry out this activity in the refugee camp was a welcome change of pace to the camp life, which was hard and full of uncertainty. Gardening also allows for refugees to have access to fresh food, which is welcomed in refugee camps, where food is very limited in amounts and variety.
Now, Josepha considers it a ‘great joy of living’ to be able to garden and grow her own vegetables in her new home of Tucson. Agriculture is a thread that connects Josepha’s past, present, and future – and is a veritable lifeline. Her refugee story is a real inspiration. Like all the refugees the IRC works to help resettle in the U.S,. she is a survivor, and we are honored to be working with her to help refugees to start a new life in her community.
The IRC has 29 offices and helps 6,000 - 10,000 new arrivals each year in acclimating to their new communities. Over the past 10 years, the IRC has reshaped expectations for nutritional well-being among its refugee clients, and has developed a multifaceted food security and agriculture program called “New Roots" to increase the supply of and demand for fresh, culturally appropriate foods within immigrant and refugee communities To learn more about their work please visit www.rescue.org/ and follow on twitter at @theIRC.
1. Josepha, can you share your story with us? As a refugee, what was your journey to the United States like?
I was a nurse for 21 years in Rwanda. In 1994, there was a genocide in Rwanda. My husband, four children and I were displaced from southern Rwanda to western Rwanda. There I worked as a nurse at a Hospital with a humanitarian aid organization and my husband worked as an interpreter. Because the organizations trusted us, our coworkers became jealous and falsely accused my husband of participating in the genocide. My husband was summoned to the police station and put in jail. He was jailed in prison in southern Rwanda, where he spent nine years. I consider agriculture to be a very important aid during this tough time in my life. Alongside my career, I was practicing agriculture to be able to feed my children and be able to bring biweekly food to my husband in prison.
My husband was freed from jail in 2004, but we fled our country so he would not be detained again. We traveled to Malawi and ended up in a refugee camp. It was my first time outside of my country and it felt like going to hell. I was depressed and could not see my future. Much of the food was spoiled, but I fed my family beans, which were still safe to eat. To feed my family, I would ration the beans to the last month. Eventually, I started a garden of amaranth and squash and would mix the beans with the squash to make them last. After a few years, we moved to another refugee camp in Malawi where I could see people I knew from Rwanda. My mind was renewed. I started to go to school to learn English, tailoring, computer skills and counseling. To support my family, I worked in a tailoring shop. After getting a counseling certificate, I became a school counselor and started a group for unaccompanied minors. I created projects to help them make money while encouraging them to stay in school.
After nine years in refugee camps, my family resettled in Tucson, Arizona. Fortunately, after 5 months my husband and I found caregiver jobs and I began interpreting for the IRC. Eventually, I became a Community Well-being Promoter and was able to combine my interpretation skills and my passion for food and agriculture.
2. How has your connection to agriculture changed depending on the country in which you live?
The biggest difference is in climate – the desert here is dry and hot – Rwanda is dry and humid. Here there’s use of irrigation systems, but in my native country, we depend only on rain. I was able to raise animals for compost, but I am not allowed to do that here. There are many plants that are new to me and each has its own season with new tastes, new textures.
3. What is the New Roots Program?
The New Roots program helps refugees to become involved in agriculture and to grow their own food. We connect interested refugees to community garden space and provide them with seeds and other resources. We host trainings to help gardeners transfer their agricultural knowledge to the particular climate of the Sonoran Desert. We also enroll clients in public benefits (such as SNAP and WIC) upon arrival, and we implement a 3-module nutrition education with families in need.
4. Have you experienced culture shock?
The trip to the United States was difficult; it was my first time flying. We were served new food in flight. English was a problem because of the difference in pronunciation. My family thought the United States was cold but when we arrived in Tucson at night it was still 100° F when we got off the plane.
I had hoped to continue my nursing and counseling education in the U.S., but the cost of living is too high, making it unaffordable to also pay for my education. Finding work is difficult in a new country and bringing in an income was my first priority.
5. From which communities do you receive the most support and what have you learned from them that is the most valuable to you?
Most of my support has come from International Rescue Committee and from an elderly Caucasian woman whom I met soon after arriving in Tucson. We have become as close as mother and daughter and from her I can always receive help and advice.
6. Who are your role models?
My mother, who just died in Rwanda, was a hard-worker and a confident lady who introduced me to agriculture. I have her to thank for my love of agriculture.
7. Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years; how to get there?
In five years, I hope to have developed my back yard into a large garden to raise enough food to feed my family with more that I can sell. In ten years, I hope to have the mortgage on my home paid off. In twenty years, I hope to be retired and able to enjoy my garden and my grandchildren.
8. What advice for young women interested in agriculture?
Share experiences with others, listen to others and share knowledge, never give up their dreams, no matter what they aspire to be in this world.
9. What’s best advice you receive from someone?
To trust in myself. Learning doesn’t stop: continue to learn in different ways as long as you are alive.
To learn more and connect with other women leaders in agriculture across the country, we encourage you to visit https://newfarmers.usda.gov/women-in-ag. If there is a leading woman in agriculture you’d like to see on the blog, please send us your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.