By Natalie S. Brown
On an early morning in August 2013, Iskashitaa Refugee Network staff and volunteers gathered outside the train station, holding a dozen teddy bears, anxiously awaiting the arrival of an equal number of Congolese refugees. This family had been resettled in Portland and then chose to relocate to Tucson, where an uncle and his own large family live and risen to leadership positions over the past few years.
A month prior, upon word of their impending arrival, Iskashitaa, in partnership with the Tucson Congolese community, had located and prepared a home for this migrating family. The house, unoccupied for some months, had required a bit of work, but was generously offered by the homeowner rent free for the first few critical months. After volunteer teams spruced up the interior and exterior, they returned, on a day shortly before the family’s arrival, to find a most curious message written in chalk on the interior of the block wall in the backyard. It read:
“Please don’t cut, this is vegetables.” Below, an arrow pointed to what looked like a yard of overgrown weeds.
The Congolese relatives of those due to arrive had been afraid, and rightly so, that the overeager American-born volunteers would cut down this precious leafy green—a food source to them, but viewed only as an annoying weed by many Tucsonans.
The plant in question? Amaranth, of course! It grows easily here in our desert soil, and is an understandable nuisance for many local farmers. (Iskashitaa has provided free weeding service to several local farms in exchange for access to this nutritious food resource.) At the same time, amaranth is beginning to rise on the global food scene as the latest superfood. The Whole Grain Council named it the “Grain of the Month” in May, and National Geographic has lauded its obesity-fighting properties for populations in Mexico and beyond. The magazine posed a rhetorical question with the article’s title: “Amaranth, Another Ancient Wonder Food, But Who Will Eat It?”
To many, it may sound like a valid concern, but for those who have had the privilege of working with refugees for any length of time, the question sounds absurd. The question is not: Who will eat amaranth? Rather, it is: Who won’t?
A handful of recent stories from Tucson illustrate amaranth’s ubiquitous uses: The unrelated Congolese single mother, who grew a backyard full of amaranth for her own family and other Congolese families for its nutritious and anti-diabetic properties, until high water bills forced her to let the plants wither and die. The Somali young man, who taught director Barbara Eiswerth how to harvest the amaranth seeds, which can be use from grain, from the plant. The Bhutanese elderly women, who while mourning the tragic drowning death of a 4-year-old, took small comfort in discovering amaranth growing by the riverbed, near the site where the child’s ashes were released. As they gathered the amaranth, they said, “This is the first meal in years that will taste like home.”
Amaranth has many health and environmental benefits. According to National Geographic, while amaranth is familiar to immigrants from multiple continents, some amaranth varieties are indigenous to North America. The same article cites sources indicating that amaranth is high in folic acid (especially important during pregnancy), is gluten-free, and utilizes less water than other crops.
“Back home”—home of course being in a variety of countries on one of several continents, depending on which new Tucsonan you’re speaking with—amaranth has long been a treasured food, even in times when other foods were quite scarce.
Here in Tucson and surrounding communities, Iskashitaa is increasingly seeking opportunities to harvest amaranth. Recently, volunteers harvested red amaranth seeds from the University of Arizona Community Garden. These seeds will be given to refugee families to plant throughout the city in backyard gardens and community garden plots
The resurgence of amaranth is important for many reasons; nutrition, economic concerns, and food sovereignty factors all play a part. Once culturally and religiously important to indigenous populations, amaranth production was outlawed by the Spanish, who equated its cultivation with “paganism.”
Back on that warm day in August, despite being overwhelmed with exhaustion from a long train ride, mixed with the uncertainty of what a new life in Tucson would bring, what did our new Congolese friends do upon arrival in their new home? Before unpacking, before settling in, before napping, they let out squeals of delight as they discovered, harvested, and promptly began cooking some of the amaranth growing in their backyard, which was then offered to all present as an integral part of the first feast prepared in this special space.
Natalie Brown is the development director for Iskashitaa Refugee Network.