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Refugees discover new ways to plant roots in America

The International Rescue Committee helps refugees connect with their past and begin building a future in their new homeland with a program called New Roots. NBC's Diana Alvear reports.

By NBC News correspondent Diana Alvear

SAN DIEGO -- It's daybreak at the City Heights Farmer's Market. Under a bright yellow tent, Luchia Lokonyen is arranging the fruits of her labor (kale, and several other greens), while greeting her customers.

"Thank you," Lokonyen said. "Have a beautiful day!"

Those are special words for Lokonyen. She arrived in San Diego four years ago, not speaking a word of English. Civil unrest forced to flee her native Uganda.


"We run, yeah," she said. "Because we see the people kill in war and then we run away."

Lokonyen spent 15 years in a Kenyan refugee camp. It was a tumultuous and dangerous time, during which her husband was murdered, leaving her a single mother of five. That's where she met workers with the International Rescue Committee who were able to resettle Lokonyen and her children in San Diego.

While she was happy to be in the United States, she was unsure how she would support her large family. Fortunately, San Diego is one of 11 cities that feature the IRC's New Roots program, a program that provides refugees with a plot of land on which to grow the crops from their native lands. They can feed their families with their harvest, and sell whatever is leftover at the farmer's market. Most growers make between $100 and $800 a month. 

Lokonyen harvests kale on a 600-square-foot plot, alongside 85 other families, refugees from countries as diverse as Cambodia, Burma and Somalia.

Ellee Igoe of the International Rescue Committee explains how the program, New Roots, gives refugees a way to connect with their heritage and forge a new life.

The man in charge, Bilal Muya, is a Somalian refugee who helped create the New Roots program six years ago. He, along with other Bantu refugees, requested some land to utilize the skills they learned in their homelands.  

"Going back to the land, taking care of the land, that's our heritage," Muya said. "That's our history. That's our value."

IRC's Ellee Igoe said the program does much more than provide land for farming.

"What I hear them tell me is they feel stronger because they are eating healthier," Igoe said. "They feel happier because they have a place to be outdoors. And they feel empowered because they are doing something that people are interested in."

Muya believes food provides common ground for refugees.

"We could have been [from] different countr[ies], different looking, but we are common in food," he said.

In just a year, Lokonyen has sown the seeds of her success. Her stand is one of the more popular ones at the market, and she has regulars who depend on her for crisp, organic kale and more. She's doing so well, she is seeking a larger plot of land.

"When I'm here in a garden," she said. "I feel like I'm home."  

Lokonyen dreams the American dream. Her goal is earn enough from farming to buy a home for her family, a home in a place of peace where they have planted new roots.

To learn more about New Roots, please visit their website: http://www.rescue.org/new-roots-america