Farming For Freedom: San Diego’s Refugee Farmers Battle For Autonomy

Amidst a myriad of chaos, community members rally behind refugee farmers fighting to stay at New Roots Farm.

It seems the Garden of Eden is sandwiched between a freeway and a side street in San Diego. Wide banana leaves droop from trees that shield the lovingly cultivated okra, hibiscus, potatoes, cassava, chickpeas, and other crops that weave and expand through the soil. On a sunny day, Fatima Abdelrahman cuts sugarcane from one of her three plots at New Roots Farm. The sweetness not only reminds her of home in Sudan, but also serves as an accessible substitute for insulin to regulate her diabetes. 

“I came to this farm and it was healing me, because I come from the war. I left my family and lost one of my kids at that time, and only this place is healing me and helps me forget. This place is my peace place, my healing place, my therapy place,” Abdelrahman said. 

Abdelrahman, who has survived violent conflict in her home country, has turned to the land for peace, like everyone at New Roots Farm. Founded in 2009 through the International Rescue Committee (IRC), New Roots has served as a place for refugee farmers from over 20 countries, including Cambodia, Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar, and Mexico. Abdelrahman has been a champion of the farm, even welcoming former First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009. 

First Lady Michelle Obama pays a visit to New Roots Farm in 2009. Photo by Obama For America, California.

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All photos by and courtesy of Hamza(uro)
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Trouble In Paradise

The farm has been embroiled in legal disputes since September 2023, resulting in the eviction of six farmers from their plots, including Abdelrahman. She and her daughter Sahar Abdalla are taking on New Roots management, City Heights Community Development Corporation (CHCDC), in court—fighting for the autonomy of all 76 farmers who use the land.  

“It’s not a place you simply rent. It is the product of almost two decades of investment and labor. The farmers are the sole investors and shareholders. This offers peace and healing for people with traumatic backgrounds,” Abdalla said. “In the heart of a congested city, these families grow food that connects them to their heritage, making it accessible for them and their communities. It’s the product of a community beyond borders.” 

The community of San Diego itself has come together to support the evicted farmers, with members from Tenants Council of San Diego, Foodshed, Bikes del Pueblo, and other organizations standing by the farmers from the beginning. Various allies and resistor farmers recently met with City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera on March 20, but Abdalla found the meeting “unproductive.”

The farmers believe the land belongs to those who work it. However, according to an April 5 testimony from CHCDC's ex-Vice President Kyra Seay, the new executive team under President Alexis Villanueva has said they do not believe that Black muslim refugees could handle being property owners. Seay left her position in January due to CHCDC's treatment of the farmers, including derogatory comments she has overheard surrounding Black women's hair. 

“We have been begging their office to do something about this situation since December. They would tell us that they don’t want to be involved or they’re gathering information. Documents show us they have been communicating with CHCDC, while ignoring our requests.” Abdalla said. “The whole meeting, [Elo-Rivera] emphasized “collective healing” and that all parties including CHCDC should get together and talk about their feelings and move on. We don’t believe there would be healing unless there is accountability.” 

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All photos by and courtesy of Hamza(uro)

Growing Disputes

The disputes began in September 2023 when farmers decided to host a Bazaar to sell their produce. After approaching CHCDC for information to obtain grower’s permits, CHCDC indicated their lease agreement with the City had lapsed 4-5 years prior, so the Bazaar would be canceled. 

Farmers like Abdelrahman wanted to know what CHCDC was doing with the yearly plot fees, grant money, and donations it had received on behalf of the New Roots Farm. Farmers did not receive tools or seeds from CHCDC, and often felt unaware of what was happening without explicitly translated materials in languages like Khmer and Arabic. 

“They just acted as oversight; they would collect the plot fee and water fee,” Sahar said. “So we had asked them after this lease situation came up, ‘Can we see this water bill that we've been paying?’ We haven't received that as well.”

The farmers took matters in their own hands and drafted a petition signed by 21 farmers to form their own autonomous NGO to legally acquire the land. The CHCDC sent “notices of renewal” for 2024 leases. Around one-third of farmers refused to sign new agreements, demanding to see legal documentation that proved CHCDC owns the land. 

“The farmers, we cannot speak good English. People are scared. We are going to take care of ourselves. You [CHCDC] don’t have a lease so we don’t need you. We’re going to the city,” Abdelrahman said. She filed her first lawsuit against CHCDC in December. 
Fatima Abdelrahman standing in the farm amidst a farmers protest.

On January 17, CHCDC informed non-signers they would have until 6:00 pm on January 20, 2024, to surrender their plots and vacate the premises or else be treated as criminal trespassers. The farmers responded with a community potluck right outside the farm on January 21, inviting other allied organizers to celebrate the autonomous group’s formation. Around 80 people gathered outside the farm, which was padlocked and guarded by a private security officer.

CHCDC hired security guard in an apparent attempt to intimidate peaceful refugee farmers with pepper spray.

After a round of protest chants, one farmer opened the gate with bolt cutters, and the farmers entered the land to tend to their crops. When the police arrived, the private guard was unable to show papers to the land, rendering any trespassing charges illegal. The farmers left peacefully that day, but more decided to renew their leases, afraid to lose access to their land.

“With surveillance and the security guard who's always there, [CHCDC] also told the farmers that they will be taking legal action against these farmers, so they're instilling fear so the farmers do not get involved,” Abdalla said.

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All photos by and courtesy of Hamza(uro)

No Man’s Land

On February 12, City Attorney Mara Elliott wrote that CHCDC never had a lease to the farm property, nor was it the owner. The city never had the authority to issue a use permit to the IRC, the farm’s original developer, because the city doesn’t own the property either. Furthermore, a community garden wasn’t an allowed use of the land. 

IRC has confirmed they transferred leadership of the farm to CHCDC in 2020, but had not signed any legal documents. Meanwhile, CHCDC filed a quiet title action to ownership of the land, claiming adverse possession since 2018.

“In order to qualify, you need to have adverse possession for at least five years. We're going to counter that because that's not true. The farmers have been there way longer than they have,” Abdalla said. “It's not up to them to decide the nature of the farm. They never really had any authority to begin with.”

The remaining six resistor farmers have not been able to access their land, apart from Abdelrahman, who obtained a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to visit her plots March 17 in a bittersweet victory. She found her crops dead and the fence of resistance farmer Natalena Kantieka destroyed. 

“I have never been this far from my plot ever since I’ve gotten it and it's been taking a huge toll on my mental health. The way I handle my own trauma has been compromised,” Kantieka said in Arabic through a translator.
Fatima Abdelrahman and her daughter Sahar Abdalla protest at New Roots Community Farm.

Studies have shown that exposure to nature effectively mitigates anxiety, depression, and chronic disease over time. The land not only grows ancestral medicines that are necessary for refugees who have survived life-altering conflict. The farm itself is medicine, and access to the land is an essential right of the farmers. 

The resistance farmers have strengthened their resolve under their own NGO to continue the fight to achieve autonomy, and when they do, they will leave the gate to their Garden of Eden open to all. 

“The farm is not the farm without every farmer who has been there. An ideal future for New Roots farm would be a farm that is autonomously run by the farmers,” Abdalla said. “With farmer autonomy, the farmers can improve their workspace. They know the needs of their community. They're the only ones that can cater to those needs.”

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All photos by and courtesy of Hamza(uro)

Take Action Now

All photos by and courtesy of Hamza(uro)