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The Refugee Story, Part 4: Learning And Growing

Although a few foreign refugees come from cities where they had sophisticated education opportunities, many lived in remote areas where there were no schools, or in refugee camps where they may have received sporadic education.

Most are immersed in an irrelevant environment when they come here -- obstacles like speaking English, taking the bus, even learning to work in an American kitchen can be challenging.

In the conclusion of our series, "The Refugee Story: Building New Lives," TPR’s Eileen Pace reports local organizations are coming together to provide resources and life skills beyond the basics. 

"This is a white radish," says SamirEbad, pointing out a plant with a white fruit. "And basil, mint and okra. And this is long bean."

Samir is from Iran, and he works alongside about a dozen other refugees from different countries who grow vegetables for their families at the CIELO Garden on Wurzbach Road.

"They didn’t really take to tomatoes or the broccoli or cabbages or anything like that,” says Michelle Gorham with Green Spaces Alliance.

Gorham said the master gardener volunteers, who helped build the gardens and coach the families in sowing the first seedlings, discovered that refugees had their own ideas about plants they wanted to grow, and they developed networks to find seeds for foods they preferred.

"Like the yard long beans and then the different squashes -- all different varieties of squashes," Gorham said. "Even some of the master gardeners couldn’t identify some of the things they were growing."

Credit Catholic Charities

Jennifer Yañez-Alaniz of Catholic Charities says the long-term plan is for the gardens to make money.

"We are building a curriculum around the garden," Yañez-Alaniz said. “And part of it is cultural leadership development. And one of our teachers is building a curriculum on actually building a business from the garden.”

But there also a need to develop other types of resources to help refugees beyond their first six months.

"They don’t come here and then leave," District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg said. "They have to come and live and establish a life here in San Antonio."

Nirenberg called the agencies together in the first "refugee summit" on Dec. 6 to collaborate regarding resources for education, transportation, and health care.

He said there’s one clinic in town open to refugees just two days a month in the evening hours. Nirenberg said that’s not enough clinic time for the more than 10,000 people who are assigned to use it. He also wants to help refugees find jobs that fit their skills, and to make it easier to use public transportation.

Nirenberg said bringing the different agencies together to talk about the gaps between services is key to San Antonio providing the best support for its new residents. He said new refugees – who come from more than 60 countries at this time -- will find a home here, because San Antonio has always been a welcoming community.

"In 2005, we welcomed the City of New Orleans and [Hurricane] Katrina refugees. And so, we’ve proven that we’re a place where, in times of trouble, people can come and receive the kindness of neighbors," Nirenberg said.

The State Department said the next wave of refugees will come from Syria, where more than 6 million people have already been displaced by the civil war, and more than 11,000 children have been killed.

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.