Immigrant Communities, Sustainable Living and the Cielo (Community) Gardens: Bhutanese Refugees in San Antonio
Federal refugee policy calls for quick self-sufficiency for families and individuals resettled in the United States, causing families to transition quickly into a culture markedly different from life in camps set up in Nepal. Refugees are a particularly vulnerable population who suffer abrupt nutritional adjustments resulting from forced migration. This research explores how participating in community food gardening supports Bhutanese refugees’ overall integration with their new country while still maintaining cultural identity through food-growing and maintaining a diet rich with traditional meals. This qualitative study explores the preservation of traditional culture among Bhutanese families who together grow fruits and vegetables in garden plots within an ethnically and culturally diverse community at an urban farm located in San Antonio, Texas. Considerable and ongoing research is being done primarily through ethnographic study with attention to the effects of resettlement on physical and social environments, diet, physical activity, income and access to healthcare.
Through informal conversations with nine individuals who garden with family and extended family units in San Antonio, we found that community garden participants hold familial agricultural land use and community belonging as very important benefits throughout the transition process. Community food gardens offer a real way for refugees to stay connected while building and expanding community in their new homes. This is significant given the increasing recognition of the importance of social connectedness, as well as community inclusivity, for overall wellbeing.
What this research aims to show is how Bhutanese families fare over time as they navigate through integrating American and Bhutanese cultures. Findings show that Bhutanese resettled in the US integrate well into their new communities after being in the United States for several years. Bhutanese refugees are in many regards similar to their U.S.-born neighbors, with similar rates of labor force participation, post-secondary education, and homeownership, despite challenges stemming from backgrounds of living in refugee camps, sparse educational opportunities, inability to work outside of the camps, and overall impoverished environments. The large majority have improved or acquired English language skills after being in the country for several years and have become naturalized U.S. citizens at the early points of eligibility. In the long run, all attain varied levels of integration, and refugees who arrive as children and grow up in this country, show even more significant success.
We continue to observe and consider open-ended reflection focusing on the following topics: 1) changes in parenting styles and values, 2) the preservation of language of origin, 3) identity through food, music, and spirituality, and 4) changes in family systems and extended family, through the positive effects of gardening at CIELO Urban Farm regarding dietary transitions associated with changes in physical and social environments, physical activity, income, access to healthcare, and psychological and emotional well-being.