To bolster financial options for refugees, a state program works to get them into farming

RAIS farmers line up beets and radishes to sell for $5 and $3 respectively at a lunch pop-up held on August 2. (Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

If you’re at the just over half-acre of farmland that is Grow North Farm for the farm-to-table lunch pop-up, you’ve got two meal options: A garden salad with a Za’atar spiced vinaigrette or chive Dijon dressing, a rhubarb basil spritzer, and either East African chapati bread or a Ukrainian meringue cookie. 

The event is put on by Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services, or RAIS, a program of Catholic Social Services.

It’s meant as a chance to show what new Alaskans — specifically refugees and asylum grantees — going through RAIS’s farm business training program have been working on throughout the year. And for RAIS farmers, it’s a chance to sell their products as fresh bunches or pickled in jars.

Jars of pickled radishes line a shelf at Grow North Farm’s lunch pop-up on August 2. Program coordinators say in recent years the program’s expanded its off-season activities to include more food security and food preservation-centered ones like pickling and cooking workshops. (Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Emily Cohn is with the Anchorage Community Land Trust, who’s a partner of RAIS. And after lunch she’s among the guides taking customers on a tour of the farm where ingredients for their lunch meal were grown.

“We have lots of community gardens in the neighborhood and people that live in the neighborhood who have all sorts of agricultural experience but don’t always have transportation to sell across the city or sell to other markets,” Cohn said, explaining how the Land Trust came to partner with RAIS, “so the farmer’s market was sort of a nice way to meet all of those needs and activate the site.”

According to RAIS program coordinator Keenan Plate, a version of the current program has been around for about a decade as Fresh International Gardens (“FIG”). But whereas FIG encompasses other job skills training like customer service and language acquisition, the program affiliated with Grow North Farm focuses on farming and entrepreneurship specifically. This was the first season participants grew food on Grow North Farm and on this scale.

A RAIS client washes carrots for selling and use in the lunch meals on August 2. (Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Plate says that’s partly due to the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Project (“RAPP”) grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which the program received in 2017. The grant’s allowed RAIS to hire Plate as a full time staff member to oversee the program and manage the additional land leased from the Anchorage Community Land Trust to meet clients’ growing need for farming space.

On the tour, Cohn says that Grow North Farm was an abandoned RV park not too long ago. It’s taken a lot to turn it into a produce farm and incubator space today.

RAIS purchased the soil with the help of the Land Trust, who sponsored the land’s irrigation system and fencing; the mayor’s office donated hoses; the Anchorage School District a greenhouse; volunteers donated training hours; and friends and family of newly arrived clients sent over seeds from overseas. 

(Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Then, of course, there’s the support of the customers who buy the products, like Beth Taylor who was at the pop up with her neighbors and her kids.

Taylor says she heard about the event from a group for moms of preschoolers and thought it was a good opportunity to talk to her children about what it might mean to be a refugee.

“We talked about refugees and what refugees were and talked about how it might feel to be a refugee, and what we could do to be welcoming and aware of people who are different from us in our community and how to be a part of that,” Taylor said. 

Another pop-up customer, Kirsten Schultz, says she moved to Anchorage from the Seattle area in 1994. She says she remembers what it was like to be new somewhere and wanted to take part in the welcoming.

“When I came to Alaska people welcomed me with open arms,” Schultz said, “and I appreciate how this program and this lunch today really highlights people from other areas of the world and all they bring to the diversity in Anchorage.”

Another customer, Judith Mack, came to witness what she considers something joyful: 

“To watch people work really hard to make a good living for their family…I think it’s very joyful to see that,” Mack said. 

RAIS Director Issa Spatrisano says supporting newly arrived Alaskans make and maintain a living is a large objective of the program today — if only as part of a more holistic self-sufficiency. And she says RAIS clients are eager.

(Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

“For some clients, they’ve been displaced for up to 17-20 years. That means that for 17-20 years you have sat in a refugee camp without the right to provide for your family, without the right to work, without the ability to maintain your own home,” Spatrisano said. “And so when someone comes into our office and we say, ‘You have to get a job,’ they say, ‘Thank you.'”

Spatrisano says most RAIS clients find and maintain employment fairly quickly within Alaska’s hospitality and fishing industries among others.  

“Parents want to care for their children, they want to contribute,” Spatrisano said. “The greatest challenge for us is making sure clients have the resources to be able to do that.”

Spatrisano says one of those challenges is making sure clients have a reliable way of getting to work. RAIS does that in part through donated gas cards and bus vouchers.

Spatrisano says some less expected benefits of the program have been clients reporting improved food security and added exercise due to the farm training.

A plot reserved for growing Congolese dodo, mustard greens, and other vegetables for use by RAIS clients. (Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

And for some, she says, it’s been a chance to plant produce not sold in Alaska markets or stores altogether. Products like mustard greens, Egyptian spinach, and Congolese dodo — “maybe not the thing that’s going to sell at market but the thing that reminds you of home.”

RAIS farmers declined to interview for this story, but Spatrisano says community members are welcome to meet and support them. At the pop-up, Spatrisano implored customers:

“Please please please don’t just eat salad. Make sure you come over and you talk to our farmers. Get to know them, talk to them, support their businesses. Refugees and immigrants are way more likely to be entrepreneurs and that’s demonstrated by this farm.”

RAIS has a produce stand three days a week. Their next pop-up will be held this September.