Immigrants sow new idea: They're also here to give back

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 15, 2013 

Sudanese refugees Mohamed Moussa, left, works in a field with Adam Musa, right, at the Goodwill Farm in Durham on Saturday, June 15, 2013. Moussa was a farmer in Syria and has been in the United States for only a month. Musa has been in the country since 2011.

AL DRAGO — Buy Photo

— As immigration reform proposals sow heated debate nationally and across North Carolina, a nonprofit organization brought together American- and foreign-born residents Saturday to plant a different seed: Many immigrants living in this state – legally or not – often want to give back to their new communities.

That was the message echoed over and over during a workday that Uniting NC, a nonprofit organization working to foster mutual respect and cooperation among North Carolina residents, held at the Goodwill Farm Center in Durham.

More than 30 volunteers spent three hours under a hot sun picking blueberries, weeding eggplant and potato rows, and planting sweet potatoes and fruit trees.

The Goodwill farm donates thousands and thousands of pounds of fresh produce each season to the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina. With a greenhouse and about two acres planted with crop on the farm off Chin Page Road, the farm often uses volunteers to help manage the crops.

The crop of volunteers sent out this week by Uniting NC included people from Burma, Colombia, Denmark, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Sudan and Vietnam. Some were political refugees who had been in this state and the country less than a month. Others were longtime residents who considered North Carolina home.

“Hopefully, people will hear about our work, and they’ll understand that immigrants are here to contribute as much as they can and are welcome to,” said Francisco Chavez, 27, a Mexican-born North Carolinian who moved to this state 15 years ago with his family. “Hopefully, this will lead to other service projects in the area.”

Chavez, whose parents have moved back to Oaxaca in southern Mexico, said sometimes he thinks of himself as a man without a country. Though North Carolina is home to him – he went to school here, went to college here and now works here – he awaits word from the federal government about whether he will be one of the thousands in this state to become a part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Under the federal program started by President Barack Obama, he could be granted a two-year deferral of deportation as lawmakers at the national level push to create new paths for citizenship.

Thomas Nielsen, a native of Denmark who came to this country for love – he married a U.S. citizen and quickly applied for and received permanent status as a U.S. citizen – knows his path to legal residency was a lot quicker and simpler than it is for many.

Nielsen, who teaches English as a second-language in Chapel Hill, drove two Sudanese men, each here as political refugees, to the Goodwill Farm on Saturday.

Not only was it an opportunity to do volunteer work, the men said, it also was a chance to meet new people.

Juliana Cabrales, a native of Barranquilla, Colombia, a city on the northern coast, said those were two of the reasons she offered three hours on a day off work to help weed crop rows, pick berries and do other work on the Durham farm.

After speaking Spanish and English as a child, Cabrales wanted to come to the United States to college and did on a student visa. Now she works as the North Carolina program manager for civic engagement at the National Alliance of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and is familiar with the national and state debates over immigration reform.

“The reality is there is a problem, and it needs to be solved,” Cabrales said. “The status quo doesn’t work – for either side. I think there’s a great need for people to work together and this is a great example of people doing that with politics not involved.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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