Refugees get help planting new roots in Arizona



Refugees work side by side with local volunteers to pick fruit from trees to bring home. (Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Somalian refugee Suleiman Arive carefully moves his foot farther up the tree branch to knock another grapefruit the size of a small basketball down to Bhutanese refugee Jasoda. She catches it, bringing a wide smile across her face.

Arive laughed and politely asked me to retrieve his phone from his bag to Snapchat their teamwork as he reached for another unwanted grapefruit from a tree in a Tucson backyard.

Arive and Jasoda are volunteering with a creative refugee network that gives those fleeing their conflict-stricken homes in Africa, Asia and the Middle East the opportunity to gain skills to better integrate them into their new home in Southern Arizona — all while saving them a trip to the grocery store by providing them with fruit and vegetables at no cost.

Iskashitaa Refugee Network allows displaced people from over 30 ethnic backgrounds to work side by side with local volunteers on harvesting more than 70 food products that would otherwise go to waste, rotting in Tucson backyards and streets.

Tons of fruits and food products, including grapefruit, Seville oranges and calamansi limes to name a few, go to waste every year because Tucson homeowners are overwhelmed by the vast amount the trees produce.

Somalian refugee Suleiman Arive climbs the tree to retrieve the harder to reach fruit while volunteering with Iskashitaa on March 1, 2017.

“It’s a dual mission that we have,” said Michael Rosenkrantz, the program and development manager for the non-profit. “It is to prevent food waste in Tucson, but also to help refugees get the product that they would otherwise have to go and buy. So we are also saving them money that they would have had to spend.”

Iskashitaa founder and director Barbara Eiswerth saw the need to act on the substantial amount of food waste in Tucson after finishing her dissertation in Malawi in southeast Africa, where she saw firsthand the rising hunger problem there. She believes that wasting local food is wasting water, something society cannot afford while facing staggering climate change.

She started recruiting refugee students in 2003 to volunteer in her project of identifying places where produce was going to waste in Tucson and then harvesting and redistributing it.

“Iskashitaa started out not as a refugee program, but a local food focus in identifying and mapping food resources,” Eiswerth said. “Then learning how to use those resources.”

Since then, Iskashitaa, the Somali and Maay Maay word for “working cooperatively together,” has grown from simply a harvesting network to a program that integrates and empowers recently arrived refugees by connecting them with resources and the chance to interact with their new community.

Volunteers work until they have gone to all the fruit picking sites and fill the van at the end of the day. (Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora News Service)

“Using food as a common denominator is a great entry point for refugees into the community and a great way to empower them because food is culture, history, religion, celebration, comfort, health, medicine, etc., and there are so many ties into that,” Eiswerth said.

Arive, 21 and his sister Amira, 25 lived most of their lives in Kuwait, after fleeing the brutal conflict that surrounded their home in Somalia. He explained that while his life was better in Kuwait, there would be no real future for him on that side of the world.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security said in its refugee arrivals report that 82,172 refugees from more than 100 countries have been resettled in Arizona since 1980. That is 2.37 percent of all 3,474,009 refugees resettled in America in the past 36 years.

Arive and his sister are just two of more than 7,000 Somalian refugees relocated in the United States.

Arriving in Tucson this past January, he has high hopes for his future and is excited to start school at Pima County Community College as a pre-medical student.

It is the third time Arive and his sister have volunteered with Iskashitaa. He said he likes the challenge of climbing the trees and bringing home fruit to eat of course, but mostly that he has the opportunity to see so much of his new home.

“We are unique in refugee programming in part that community integration is integral in the volunteering activities,” Eiswerth said. “They are going to people’s homes, their backyards and being exposed to all different neighborhoods all over the city which they wouldn’t normally get and that is important to them.”

Arive is grateful for his chance to be resettled in America and believes he will be the best paramedic the United States has ever seen.

Bhutanese refugee Jasoda uses a fruit picker tool to reach the fruit at the top of the grapefruit tree. (Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Brittan Bates is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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