What was Walid Gamarelanbia, a refugee from Sudan, doing, climbing up in Lynne Ingalls front-yard cumquat tree in northwest Tucson – a tree her son had planted more than 30 years ago?
Harvesting fruit, of course.
On Saturday, Gamarelanbia (whose last name translates as "prophets of the moon") climbed up a ladder and, wearing a harvesting sack that looped around his left shoulder, proceeded to fill it with perfectly ripe and delicious cumquats.
Cumquats are "the little brother of the orange," according to Gamarelanbia. He and a small group of people rode up to a couple of households near Ina and Shannon roads and proceeded to harvest the citrus trees growing in two Northwest yards.
The group is called the Iskashitaa Refugee Harvesting Network. The word Iskashitaa means "working cooperatively together."
Barbara Eiswerth is the director and founder of the refugee harvesting network.
"I speak food," Eiswerth said. "Our group is the only one in the nation that has fused welcoming refugees and harvesting.
"Food is a common denominator among all cultures. Harvesting food is a concept that the refugees are familiar with. The food that we harvest is divided up in three ways: some of it is taken home, some of it is donated and some of it is sold. We recently filled two 18-wheeler trucks with harvested food and donated it to the Community Food Bank."
Last Saturday, Eiswerth and Natalie Brown, community liaison for Iskashitaa, came with refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Bhutan and other countries, along with volunteers from Catalina Foothills High School and college students to pick fruit from the citrus trees of two Northwest-side homeowners.
"The cumquats would have fallen on the ground and just gone to waste," said homeowner Ingalls.
"I don't like to waste things," said homeowner Ruth Denholtz, watching people harvest her lemon and grapefruit trees. "It helps me out, too. Anytime you can help people with something you don't need, it's a good thing."
The group worked quickly, cooperatively and efficiently. Some climbed ladders, some reached under the tree and others took long-handled fruit pickers to reach the fruit on the top. In short order, crates of lemons and grapefruits were filled.
"A refugee is a person who has fled their home country due to persecution or fear of persecution because of their religion, ethnicity or political activity," explains Natalie Brown. She has experience working with AIDS projects in the United States, Mexico and Tanzania, and points out there are three refugee resettlement agencies in Tucson.
Qamar collects lemons growing near the bottom and that have fallen down under the tree. She is from Somalia and her family fled during the war. Thirteen-year-old Fahima is from Sudan. She easily picks up a crate full of lemons and carries it, balancing the load atop her head. Lun Xu is tall; he can reach the higher areas easily. Sanz Ghalay, from Bhutan, reaches toward the top with a long-handled pole that has a basket on the end.
Benjamin Matiella is a volunteer from Catalina Foothills High School. He is considering an Eagle Scout project with the Fruit Harvesters Network. Jena Decker and Talia Chonover are college students on winter break.
Harvesting and saving food that would otherwise go to waste is just one of the benefits of the harvesting network. The refugees learn English, life skills, how to navigate through the city, friendship with each other and Americans, physical activity and better nutrition, according to Eisworth.
"By donating much of the food that is picked to organizations like the Food Bank or the Gospel Rescue Mission, they are giving back to the community right away," she said. Anyone interested in being a fruit donor can call (520) 440-0100, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about Iskashitaa and a catalog of items the group creates and sells, such as marmalade, mesquite flour, prickly pear vinegar and harvesting sacks, can be viewed at www.fruitmappers.org
Within an hour, the trees are stripped bare of fruit and the filled crates are loaded into the back of a truck.
"Many hands make light work," said Brown.
"No fruit left behind, no refugee left behind," adds Eisworth.