Finding Pieces of Home Through Food

New Yorkers maintain connections to their home countries through food and community-building.

By Maya Chung and Galie Darwich

Amy Richards, Health Projects Coordinator at Make the Road NY chats with Guillermo, a volunteer at Grove Farm. (Photo by Maya Chung)

In a city where over 37% of residents are foreign-born, New Yorkers are connecting to their homelands through food.

Grove Street Farm is an urban garden on the corner of Grove Street and Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. As city traffic rushes by, the small community garden is bustling with its own sounds. Volunteers from a range of Latin American countries gather to maintain the space and trade gardening tips.

Grove Street Farm is managed by Make The Road NY, an organization that provides a variety of services to Latino and immigrant communities in New York City.

Each year, Grove Street Farm has a different harvest. The crops vary according to the volunteers’ needs, what they wish to grow and what seeds they bring from their home countries.

Volunteers share their agricultural knowledge from back home with each other at the farm.

“We have people who bring seeds…we also have people who bring their remedies for different kinds of pests,” Amy Richards, Make the Road NY’s Health Projects Coordinator, said.

The garden has one ultimate goal: to pass along traditional methods of growing food to future generations.

Grove Street Farm transcends generational and cultural divides. Grandparents bring their grandchildren; volunteers descend from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries.

“You hear a lot of, ‘bueno, en mi país’…so, like, ‘in my country, we do it this way’,” Richards said, referring to the way volunteers collaborate to cultivate the garden.

For many of the volunteers, Grove Street Farm provides a connection to their homelands and families. Fidel Hernández, a volunteer from Puebla, Mexico, achieves this by teaching other gardeners some of the techniques he learned from his parents.

He said that he’ll teach anyone — no matter where they come from. “This is my power, this is my way…and I don’t want to forget about it,” Hernández said.

In Jackson Heights, Queens, another man works to bring together people through food-focused service work. Vicente Mayorga left his home country of Ecuador 23 years ago, hoping to provide for his family. Now, he works to provide for the Latino community in New York. He is currently working to launch a new food pantry through Make the Road NY.

According to Mayorga, Latinos are fleeing their home countries due to hunger. A piece from The Guardian reports that food and medication shortages, among other economic and political issues, have driven 52,000 Venezuelans to apply for asylum in the period from January to July of this year.

“Immigration and the needs in our countries have divided not only my family, but thousands and thousands of families. We hope this ends,” said Mayorga. “Each country has the obligation of creating conditions that prevents people to leave the country because of hunger.”

Shortly after President Trump’s travel ban this year, Nasser Jaber began hosting a series of “Displaced Dinners,” in which a newly settled refugee cooks dinner for a group of ticket-holding guests. Jaber, who immigrated from Palestine two weeks before 9/11, is the owner of a tiny Middle Eastern restaurant on Rivington Street called Mazeish Grill.

Armed with an understanding of the “politics of food,” Jaber works to bring people together and help immigrants maintain a connection to their cultures, he said.

The purpose of the dinners is multifaceted. For one, many newly settled refugees are deep in debt. Proceeds from the dinner tickets are given directly to the refugee chef.

Jaber also wants to combat xenophobia by raising awareness through these dinners, helping New Yorkers put a face and name to the refugee crisis.

Past refugee chefs have included Lutfi, who fled Syria due to homophobia, and Yusura, who was displaced from Damascus when the Assad regime started bombing her hometown.

Nasser Jaber raises awareness of migrants in New York through his Displaced Dinners program.

“I want people to leave the dinner with a better understanding of how the refugee crisis happened…and what leads to this kind of situation,” he said.