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On my best days, I smile half as much as Yaya does on his worst.

It wasnt until the afternoon he told me that his mother was killed that his smile faded; leaving
me to attempt to fill our shared space with my own.
An influential human rights activist from Guinea, Yaya fled his home in 2013 after authorities
repeatedly arrested and tortured him for publicly opposing their corruption. Every asylum seeker
has this moment when it suddenly becomes clear that their persecution is never going to end.
For Yaya, that moment came when authorities began arresting members of his family, including
his pregnant wife.
An ardent visionary, Yaya took a stand for his people so wholeheartedly that the struggle
became woven with his identity. When the moment came when he knew his persecution would
affect those he loved most, choosing to flee was anything but simple.
Severing himself from his family, his fight, and his identity, Yaya escaped death and fled to a
place where his ideals and opinions were protected by law. When Yaya and I first met, we
toured the farm to see if he was interested in participating in the Urban Farm Recovery Project.
With his incipient English vocabulary, and his innate language of charisma and positivity, Yaya
expressed his eagerness to be on the farm. For the first time, I bore witness to his poignant
fervor for life.
We can all call upon moments in our lives when this fervor ascends to the surface, and likewise,
the moments when we descend so low into darkness that a smile is incomprehensible. Most of
us can also relate to the cognitive dissonance of accomplishing even the most mundane tasks
in the latter moments, like dressing yourself up the day after a breakup. Perhaps youve even
experienced these sensations in places where you dont feel at home, and if you have not, try to
imagine the ways that these sensations mingle. Despair woven with disorientation, urgency
netted with helplessness. Certainly, weve all been afflicted by the lingering depression that
comes when youre peering up the slope of a seemingly insurmountable struggle from the
bottom of the hill.
Plagued by a confluence of these experiences, and the repercussions of trauma, asylum
seekers arrive to the U.S extremely vulnerable and with little support. In 2006, the Refugee and
Immigrant Fund (RIF) was founded to fill this void: to welcome those seeking refuge with an
unwavering conviction that concrete support and emotional healing are inextricable. RIF
provides newcomers with a roadmap to the legal process of seeking asylum, and connects them
with employment and educational opportunities that make a difference both in their lives, and in
their new communities. While our fellows receive stipends and job references for their work on
the farm, they also receive an equally critical opportunity to heal and to adjust to their new
environment.
When resilient individuals like Yaya join our family, we are there to hold them in the human
moments; when enduring another day without meeting your only son seems unbearable. Rather

than compartmentalizing and pathologizing their normal reactions to abnormal circumstances,


RIF empowers asylum seekers to get back on their feet and to reconnect to a sense of self that
is often lost in the process of fleeing. Privileging access and trust, we empower these new New
Yorkers to cultivate associations with the city that encourage them to continue persevering. The
most cherished form of compensation that we receive for our work is when, years later, we
watch as parents like Yaya reunite with their children in a safer land.
As we have continued to bear witness to their journeys, weve come to understand that the root
of this perseverance is hope. Weve also learned a few things about what this process of
bearing witness can do for urban farmers, art students, and asylum seekers alike. What this
Journey Breeds is a testament to the way that this process allows us to transcend real and
imagined boundaries, and to connect to a shared experience of the urgency of life.