“A Joy to do this Work”: RIF Founder Maria Blacque-Belair

Maria Blacque-Belair, the founder and director of the Refugee and Immigrant Fund, is for many refugees and asylum seekers coming to the U.S. their first friendly face and most dependable helping hand. In a rare quiet moment between her shift at Doctors Without Borders and an outing to the Queens Botanical Garden with a newly-arrived RIF client, she took the time to talk about RIF’s mission, its partnership with the Brooklyn Grange, and the changing face of RIF’s home borough, Queens.

RIF founder Maria Blacque-Belair at the farm with Madame Barry, a former program participant. (photo: Koray Ersin)

RIF founder Maria Blacque-Belair at the farm with Madame Barry, a former program participant. (photo: Koray Ersin)

What sort of work did you do before founding the Refugee and Immigrant Fund?

Before RIF I was doing a lot of humanitarian work in different warzones and humanitarian crises around the world. I did that for about ten years, and when I came back to New York I decided to specialize in war trauma and how it affects people on psychosocial levels. So I went back to NYU to study social work, and then I had the chance to work at the community based organization Safe Horizon in Jackson Heights, Queens, in a program called Solace, for survivors of torture. And while I was there I realized that there were a lot of asylum seekers coming to the country, and to New York especially, but there was no sort of entry point for them.

The Solace program eventually ended because, guess what? It ran out of money. But I saw it as an opportunity to create a space and a welcome center for asylum seekers. So I moved myself and my office to 37th Street in Astoria, to the ground floor of my home — I actually turned my garage into the RIF center!

What did RIF do when you first founded it?

I founded RIF in the summer of 2007. It started as an asylum orientation center, so it really covered the basics — we gave clients individual orientations and information about the asylum process, because it’s very complex and difficult to understand, so we tried to make it user friendly. People would come and we just sat with them and gave them sort of a road map of what they needed to do. We referred them to pro bono lawyers, we did forensic psychological evaluations for the immigration court, psychosocial counseling… People are usually very upset and traumatized and they need to have someone to talk to, so we would have lunch together, meet in groups, all that kind of thing. We saw about 60 to 100 clients a year.

How did RIF’s partnership with the Brooklyn Grange develop?

In 2010 I read in the New York Times that there was this rooftop farm being built, and there was a picture of this crane going up with the soil, and I thought, “Wow! Not only is this amazing, but it’s really close to us!” And I thought, “How come such cool things are happening in Queens and not in Brooklyn?” [Brooklyn Grange’s flagship farm is, in fact, located in Long Island City.]

So I decided to walk there, and it was June, a beautiful night. I go up to the roof and they were serving basil vodka drinks! They had an event that night, and everybody who came up was served a basil vodka drink, and I thought “Wow, this is so cool!” And I ran into Ben, the founder and creator of the farm. I told him it would be lovely to find a way to collaborate, and you know, Ben is so friendly; he said, “Sure, that would be wonderful!”

The idea at the beginning was really to have RIF’s clients go there mostly for therapeutic purposes, you know? To have an outdoor space, a friendly space, a way to be productive and think about something other than the stress of the asylum process, which is horrible. That’s how it started, and I kind of feel like RIF and the Brooklyn Grange have grown together.

Maria and participants enjoying lunch at the farm. (photo: Koray Ersin)

Maria and participants enjoying lunch at the farm. (photo: Koray Ersin)

How do RIF’s participants first react to the Urban Farm Project, and how do those perceptions change by the end of the season?

It depends in some ways on the participant and their own background. There’s been a range of reactions. For some people, they’re kind of like, “What are you talking about, a farm on the rooftop?” They think at the beginning that it’s a little crazy. And especially when they come in early March, you know, and it’s still snowing…They don’t know if it’s a joke or not!

Then there are some professionals; they’re lawyers or accountants in their country. They tend to have a little bit of a stigma about it, thinking, “Farming? That’s a dead end; my family sacrificed for me to study and move away from that.” So it’s interesting that they feel that way at the beginning, but over time, after meeting with a lot of the Americans who are coming themselves from good schools, or like [Brooklyn Grange Asst. Farm Manager] Alia, they were professional lawyers who became urban farmers, they begin to take it more seriously and actually start to realize that it’s a really interesting place, and even an interesting concept to eventually apply in their own country. You see their perceptions change over time.

And now we have a lot of program applicants who were working either as agricultural engineers, or in forestry in their home countries, and they’re just so happy to find out there is a place where their skills can be used somehow. So, I’m really happy about that; it’s very heartwarming. And so far everyone who has been in the program, whether they’re interested in urban farming as a career or not, has said that it’s a wonderful community-building experience.

Maria and a 2013 participant receiving his Farm Project diploma. (photo: Koray Ersin)

Maria and a 2013 participant receiving his Farm Project diploma.

What’s been one of your best experiences since founding RIF?

Tene, one of our participants last year, we helped her with her legal case which was a very, very difficult time. She was separated from her daughter for 12 years. They were reunited just this week, and one of the first things Tene did was bring her to the farm to meet everyone, and that was a very deep reward for us, you know? That she felt like that’s one of the first places and people she wanted her daughter to know. But I know one of the reasons she did that is because she has felt so embraced by the Farm Project, she really blossomed there.

When you aren’t busy at RIF or Doctors Without Borders, how do you enjoy spending an afternoon in Queens?

Well, what I’ll do is stroll down 30th Ave. because it has the best vegetable stores and some great butchers, they have such fresh food. My favorite place is Astoria Bier and Cheese, on Broadway, where my friend Mike works; he’s a great connoisseur in cheese, so that’s always a fun thing to do. The Socrates Sculpture Park is also so nice, and I’m really looking forward to the LIC Flea Market on 36th Street starting in May. It’s just so fun these days, Astoria is changing so much!

But I have to say, this is a job that I’m lucky to really love. It has its stresses and so on, but really, it’s a joy to do this type of work. And further, imagine being able to go to the farm every Wednesday…it’s just so wonderful.

(Written by Chris Barrett for RIF)

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