Driving down a lonesome dirt road near the northern edge of Tucson, past dense cotton fields ripe with white puffs that sway in the morning breeze, it’s easy to miss the unassuming goji berry shrubs growing wild in the desert brush.
But on this autumn day, the scraggly plant beckons a small group of people. Ten women and men emerge from parked cars, small plastic bags in hand, and swiftly begin picking the minuscule berries while chatting in English, Arabic, and Swahili. Although the day is still young, the workers have already filled the back of a pickup truck with freshly cut pumpkins from a nearby field in Marana.
Picking fruits and vegetables that others might overlook is a specialty for these nimble harvesters. Throughout the year, they scour backyards, farm fields, and even the open desert on a mission to salvage food before it goes to waste.
The purpose? To recapture a wide-ranging supply of fresh food that Iskashitaa Refugee Network will use to nourish displaced people resettling in Tucson from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Forced by conflict to start a new life in the United States, they are people like Nargis Nabi from Afghanistan, Nandi Neopaney from Bhutan, Faeza Hililian from Iraq, and Adam Abubakar from Sudan. Abubakar, a familiar face at Iskashitaa harvests, is among those picking berries. The sight of the red, egg-shaped fruit makes him think of his North African homeland.
“We have many like this in my country,” the youthful father of four tells a companion as he points to a berry bush. When the fruit picking is over, both berries and pumpkins are delivered to Iskashitaa’s headquarters in central Tucson, where the crops are weighed, sorted, and distributed to refugees throughout the city. Last year, the newcomers and local volunteers gleaned some 100,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables such as pomegranates, dates, mesquite pods, and tangelos. Refugees not only help with crop harvesting but also participate in an array of culinary activities that allow them an opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life.
“There’s healing, there’s camaraderie,” says Barbara Eiswerth, director and founder of Iskashitaa. “It’s a good way for them to integrate into the community and become empowered.”
While various resettlement agencies help incoming refugees to secure housing and jobs, since 2003 Iskashitaa has offered new arrivals a support network that seeks to ease their transition to American culture. Refugees resettling here from more than 20 countries collectively have known wars, persecution, and genocide. Iskashitaa works to help them move forward through the universal language of food.
“We harvest together, we do food preparation, food demos, and cultural exchange activities so refugees can share their knowledge with the larger Tucson community,” Eiswerth says.
Anywhere from 800 to 1,200 refugees arrive in Tucson each year as part of a regular influx of displaced populations to Arizona. The state, which ranks sixth in resettlement admissions across the nation behind Texas, California, New York, Michigan, and Florida, resettled 2,964 refugees last year. In that time, the United States took in about 70,000 of the world’s 1.6 million refugees. The number of admissions, set by the president, ebbs and flows each year in sync with wars and political upheaval around the globe.
When Iskashitaa came into being, many arriving refugees were Bantu-speaking members of a persecuted ethnic minority in Somalia that a raging civil war has driven out of their country. After working with Somali Bantu youth early on, Eiswerth named the nonprofit in their language.
Iskashitaa, or “working cooperatively together,” turned out to be a fitting name for an organization that now works with some 30 ethnic groups with different customs, beliefs, and palates. Getting to know which refugees eat what has been a learning experience for Eiswerth and her small staff. In 2005, when Liberians resettled here, they wondered where they might find fresh pumpkin leaves. “To eat?” Eiswerth recalls asking.
Iskashitaa now regularly harvests pumpkin leaves, along with the fruit’s tender shoots, flowers, and seeds, to the delight of refugees who include them in their diet. “For refugees, the pumpkin is not just a jack-o-lantern,” she says.
The day after harvesters drop off a bounty of pumpkins and parts at Iskashitaa, the place bustles with workers and volunteers. Rows of the fleshy orange fruit line a wall and a storage room overflows with boxes of produce. Inside the adjacent offices, Mason jars atop shelves brim with carob powder, roasted jojoba beans, and dry herbs that Iskashitaa uses in educational workshops. Eiswerth’s home is on the other side of her workplace and the land between the two structures grows plants, holds a compost site, and hosts special gatherings.
Near a swimming pool, Afghani Nargis Nabi and Aluda Taku, from Eritrea, stand behind a table. Unable to speak a common language, they work quietly in tandem, gently dipping pumpkin flowers in a water container to rinse off any bugs. Taku arrived in Tucson just three months ago, so English remains a jumble of foreign words. She helps out at Iskashitaa to fulfill community service work that newly arrived refugees on government cash assistance must perform each week. Many stay on as volunteers after they get jobs and become self-sufficient.
Nabi, a war widow, has been a fixture at Iskashitaa for several years. Her flower task complete, she heads for the storage room and collects enough pumpkins, dates, rosemary, and chile peppers to feed four Afghani families new to Tucson.
“It’s very good, delicious food,” Nabi says while loading food boxes in the trunk of her car.
Eiswerth, a gregarious woman trained as a research geologist and environmental scientist, puts a couple of food boxes into a white cargo van donated by the Tucson Community Food Bank. The agency is one of many Iskashitaa works with to reach out to refugees. On this early Thursday afternoon, she heads to an apartment complex on North Alvernon Way that’s home to refugee tenants from several countries. As she drives, she points to a property where Iskashitaa has plucked grapefruits and lemons before they spoiled. She’s constantly on the lookout for fruits and vegetables that litter yards and alleys, which can mean more harvesting locations.
“Homeowners aren’t picking them or using them,” she says.
Her zeal for preventing food waste can be traced back to the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when Eiswerth was growing up in Pennsylvania. The youngest of three children, she lived in Bradford Woods, a borough outside Pittsburgh. “My brother and sister’s summer jobs were cutting lawns,” she says. “But there were often apple trees in people’s yards.”
Eiswerth would pick up the apples off the ground, gather glass milk jugs from neighbors, and, after cleaning the containers, beg her mother to take her to a community apple press.
“And so the apples—damaged, bruised—all would go into the apple press,” she says. “Then I’d fill up the jugs with apple cider, go back to the neighbors, and sell them.”
Many years later, during work trips to do research in East and West Africa in the late 1990s to early 2000, Eiswerth came face to face with the ravaging impact of food shortages. “Then I would come back to Tucson and there’d be pomegranates on the ground, Meyer lemons on the ground, and figs on the ground,” she says. “It got harder and harder to come back here, having just been in a village that’s experiencing a hunger period.”
The idea for what would eventually become Iskashitaa started taking shape. A local government grant allowed her to put together a group of young people that, using Geospatial Information Technologies like satellite images, mapped area neighborhood food resources—everything from edible weeds to herbs to native and non-native trees. Other youth, including Somali Bantu refugees, later continued work on the project. Now hosted on internal Google maps, Iskashitaa has identified hundreds of locations where volunteers have permission to harvest, including farm fields, public spaces such as Tohono Chul Park, and many private residences.
In the backyard of Nura Dualeh and Mohamud Farah’s home, their fickle pomegranate tree produced enough of the fruit to tingle the taste buds of family, neighbors, and colleagues last season. And still the shrub offered an abundance of its red, round bounty in October, late in the season. Like they do every year, Iskashitaa volunteers came by. This time, they harvested some 350 pounds of pomegranates.
“It was an unbelievable year,” Dualeh says. “As a homeowner you feel good that the tree was harvested and it didn’t go to waste.”
Some of those pomegranates ended up in the home of Bhutanese refugee Nandi Neopaney, who resettled here five years ago. His family is from the small nation of Bhutan, in South Asia. Eiswerth arrives at Neopaney’s apartment complex and finds him tending to his plot in a community garden. Iskashitaa supplies seeds, compost, and soil for such agricultural endeavors to refugees, many of them former subsistence farmers. Neopaney shows off his bumper crop of mustard greens, chile peppers, and luffa gourds, a common vegetable in Asia, to Eiswerth and Iskashitaa harvesting coordinator Chloe Sovinee-Dyroff.
“Wait ‘til you see what we have for you today,” Eiswerth tells the affable man.
When later, in his garage, Eiswerth hands him a bunch of pumpkins, shoots, and leaves, Neopaney says it reminds him of the years he spent at a refugee camp in Nepal. A food truck would drop off food that he helped distribute to fellow Bhutanese, he recalls.
“I do same here,” he says, cracking a smile. Before leaving, Eiswerth encourages him to gather some of the marigolds, peppers, and holy basil that surround his apartment to sell at the farmers’ market. A goal of Iskashitaa is to increase refugee participation at farmers’ markets, where the nonprofit makes available to Tucsonans local fruits and vegetables, including some rarely found in grocery stores. Date syrup is such a food.
Iskashitaa recently collected about 2,100 pounds of dates—thanks to a state grant, the most they’ve ever collected—after inspecting 12 sites and working closely with landscapers.
“We harvested at three different places at Orange Grove and Oracle, where the old orange groves were around the 1930s,” she says. “They also planted date palms.”
When it’s time to make date syrup, Iskashitaa calls on the experts: refugees from Iraq, where millions of date palms grow. Faeza Hililian, who arrived in Tucson five years ago, seems at home in the kitchen of St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, a fiscal sponsor for Iskashitaa. She often takes part in food preservation workshops on making marmalades, jams, and dressings.
One early afternoon, Hililian left her English class early to help make date syrup with fellow Iraqi Alaa al Ani and other cooks. Standing over a huge pot, Hililian stirred the liquid extracted from boiling dates in water, then strained through a cloth. Once thickened, the liquid fills glass bottles that are placed in a water bath canner to prevent spoiling. Iraqis mix the date syrup with tahini, a sesame seed paste, and eat it with flat bread. Dates rolled in sesame seeds are another favorite snack.
A few days later, Hililian arrives at the Benedictine Monastery on Country Club Road. Iskashitaa volunteer Marcela Ball drove her there so she could drop off a bottle of date syrup for the nuns, who weeks earlier had allowed Iskashitaa to pick dates from some of the 40 palms that go mostly unharvested on the grounds. Many years ago, when the trees were smaller, the sisters used to climb on scaffolding and pick the dates themselves both to eat and sell to visitors, says Sister Ramona Varela. But the sisters can’t afford to pay a landscaping company to pollinate the tall trees and later harvest the fruit.
Iskashitaa and its partners made it possible for the sisters to once again savor the dates. Sister Varela and Hililian agree that increasing the amount gleaned every year would be ideal.
Ever the Iskashitaa ambassador, Hililian talks about finding ways to expand date harvesting well beyond the monastery so more people can enjoy the tasty fruit. “We can do that,” she says, matter-of-factly. ✜
Iskashitaa Refugee Network. 1406 E. Grant Road. 520.440.0100. Iskashitaa.org.
Lourdes Medrano is a Tucson writer who covers stories on both sides of the border. Follow her on Twitter @_lourdesmedrano.