The Student Connection

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Service-Learning Opportunity: Community Garden Project for Somali Bantu in Utica

By Michael Mancini, Assistant to the Dean, Central New York Center

December 7, 2011

Project Feeds Families; Teaches Farming Skills to Refugees

Alan Davis and Reed CoughlanSUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Reed Coughlan, a mentor at Central New York Center, Utica, has been instrumental in the creation of a partnership that aids Somali Bantu refugees to become more self-sufficient. Having worked with many refugees, he understands the broad transition challenges for refugees, and has been able to connect across cultures and communities to aid many to become productive members of their community.

(Photo at left: President Alan Davis with Professor Reed Coughlan in the garden.)

Recently, Coughlan has been involved in creating a community garden for Somali Bantu refugees by collaborating with the Municipal Housing Authority in Utica. This effort provides an opportunity for these refugees to grow and harvest their own crops.

“I know that for many refugees the pull of home and tradition can be constant and strong,” says Coughlan “So, in this way, we are trying to carve out a piece of home for them here, in their newly adopted home.”

The community garden would serve 40 Somali Bantu families. The average family size is large, so the project was planned to provide vegetables for about 480 individuals residing in municipal housing apartments.

The Somali Bantu are unique among African refugees both because they had spent at least 10 years languishing in refugee camps in Kenya prior to their arrival in the United States and because they were entirely unfamiliar with the essential conditions of life in modern Western society, Coughlan explains.

“They had been subsistence farmers in Somalia before the war broke out and had been marginalized within their own society, were denied access to education and are illiterate in their own language. These conditions have made their resettlement efforts in the U.S. unusually challenging,” Coughlan adds.

The proposal was based on research Coughlan conducted during a period of six years. In the fall of 2005, he received funding to investigate the resettlement experiences of African refugees in Utica. He interviewed 42 individuals in Utica, including 13 Liberians, 11 Sudanese and 18 Somali Bantu, before deciding he needed to broaden the geographic reach of the project by talking to a sample more representative of the 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees admitted to the United States. During the following year, he spoke with Somali Bantu refugees in Columbus, Ohio; Rochester, N.Y.; Burlington, Vt. and Lewiston, Maine. He also interviewed five respondents in Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz. and conducted follow-up interviews in Columbus, Rochester and Utica. In addition to formal interviews, Coughlan has maintained informal contact with individuals he spoke to and several interpreters.

“Unemployment for this group has been exacerbated by the recession,” says Coughlan. “While the literature on refugee (or immigrant) resettlement suggests that conditions of life will gradually improve the longer they are in the country, this has not happened for the Somali Bantu. Measures of life satisfaction among this group suggest that conditions have deteriorated over the last six years.”

Somali Bantu families who participate in this project are expected to attend biweekly meetings of the Somali Bantu Gardeners Association where they learn about American approaches to gardening, food preparation and the more general expectations of life and membership in the apartments.

Coughlan, along with several of his service-learning students and a master gardener, planned and implemented the gardens with funds from a modest grant. The gardener arranged with local farmers and greenhouses to secure plant starts and Coughlan purchased seeds. A local farmer was engaged to till the beds in preparation for planting. Coughlan also worked with staff at the housing authority to seek donations from national-chain vendors for fencing, and from farmers for straw and compost. One service-learning student worked supervising and managing the gardens during the summer months.

For Coughlan, this is not just about helping out the Somali Bantu families, it is about service learning, “writ large.” He has connected with other local colleges to talk on a larger scale about what service learning means for both the students and the community. Next year, Coughlan hopes to bring faculty together to talk about service learning, and how it can really change a community.

Coughlan’s life, work and scholarship have focused on the refugee in America. Recently, he had a chapter, “Transnationalism in the Bosnian Diaspora in America,” published in the book, “The Bosnian Diaspora,” edited by Marko Valenta and Sabrina Ramet.

Coughlan has been honored for his work with refugees with the Altes Prize in 2003. He has been with the college since 1974.

For more information, contact Coughlan.