Radishes and Refugees

Written by Laura Lea Rubino, Program Coordinator, Team Maine

Throughout our two weeks of intensive training, we Climate Summer riders were taught that movement building is about making connections and discovering unlikely relationships between individuals, groups, and ideas. Never did I think that during our adventures this summer I would be able to unite the two things in life I am most passionate about: the state of our natural environment and the continent of
Africa. My experiences in Portland and Lewiston have proven that a bridge between these two things is already in existence and I have enjoyed seeing my dreams as realities.

Only one week before arriving in Boston for the kickoff of Climate Summer, I returned to the United States from studying abroad for five months in Cape Town, South Africa. Living in Cape Town was a life changing and non-stop learning experience for me, and when it came time to leave in early June I was far from ready to say goodbye to the
people I considered family and the city I had begun to call home. Five months in Cape Town provided enough time for me to open my eyes, heart, and mind to new languages, customs, values and attitudes radically different from my own. Coming home from this experience was extremely difficult, and it is something I still reflect upon and
process every single day. Most of my internal struggle comes as a direct result of feeling overwhelmed by the common American practices of selfishness and consumerism, and the fast-paced/out of touch way in which many of us tend to live our day-to-day lives.

Last week Team Maine was in Portland, where there is a large concentration of immigrants and refugees from Central and Eastern Africa. Over the course of the week my teammates and I had the privilege of listening to stories from individuals who had escaped genocide in Darfur, violence in Burundi, and unrest in Rwanda. While listening to the stories these resilient individuals had to tell, I couldn’t help but inquire about their impressions of Americans and American culture (or lack thereof). One Rwandan man named Eric put it quite simply when he said, “America is too much and America has too much. It is all too much.” Eric has been in America for less than a year but his observations about our society are really quite astute.

He believes Americans care more about money and possessions than any people he has ever come into contact with. Because this is where our focus and interests lie, Eric wonders if Americans have lost touch with things (relationships, learning, enjoying the present moment) that truly matter. I find myself wondering the same.

Working in the garden

I was nervous to leave South Africa because I knew it meant returning to the American reality that Eric spoke so articulately about. I was not ready to reenter a society whose values I felt no longer matched my own. And though I was reluctant to come back to the place I have called home for the last 21 years of my life, I was thrilled to know that I would be spending my summer facing this struggle and working to inspire fundamental change in the way people live their lives and view our earth.

In Lewiston we have been working with an organization called Lots to Gardens that teaches Somalian youth how to grow food, cook well-balanced meals, and lead more healthy lives. This program allows youth to develop leadership skills by demanding that all participants
take responsibility for their own well-being and health. I have spent two days pulling weeds, watering flowerbeds, and planting seeds alongside high school-aged Somalians who have escaped their war-torn homeland to live America and try and start anew. Working for hours in the blazing sun and midday heat can take a mental and physical toll on anyone, yet listening to these kids speak about their homes in Africa and the difficulties they have experienced in moving to America, I easily managed to ignore the minor discomforts of heat and sweat. I admire these kids for more reasons than I can possibly say, and the passion they have for their gardens, their health, and for one another reminds me that there is so much good in our nation pushing us toward
a brighter and more sustainable future. During these past two weeks I have spoken in French with a Rwandan about the genocide of 1994, listened to a refugee from Sudan describe how as a boy of thirteen he scavenged dumpsters in Khartoum to trade scraps of metal and shards of glass for clean water, and I have planted zucchini with a boy who
speaks about his love for Africa with a sadness I cannot describe in words.

Though I miss South Africa every day, I remind myself how lucky I am to have had the chance to live somewhere new and different for five months of my young adult life. When I left Cape Town I told myself I would never have an experience comparable to my semester abroad. Recently, however, my thoughts have begun to change as it seems that
opportunities for growth and learning are endless when we take the time to listen to one another, ask questions that matter, and build bridges in places we may never have thought possible.

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One Response to Radishes and Refugees

  1. marlamarcum says:

    Did I miss something about the meaning of your title? I thought I was going to be reading a post about the muppets! Instead, it was moving and beautiful – but totally not funny 😉

    I am so glad that you are having the opportunity to weave your passions together and that your choice to live simply on your bike this summer allows you to be a bit sheltered from the reverse culture shock of coming back to this country after last semester… I fear the reverse (consumer) culture shock at the end of the summer may be a serious jolt, but you will have had even more time by then to develop your own sense of what is most important/valuable to you and to practice living in ways that prioritize those things. Beautiful post! Thank you!

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