In Domiz refugee camp in Iraq, Avine Ismail grows flowers and plants in her garden, a temporary reprieve from the reality of a 13-year-old daughter with a life-threatening heart condition, and the risk of a husband being killed by the Islamic State. Sometimes, a neighbour comes to sit in silence beside a bucket containing a single rose.
When Avine asks her why, the neighbour replies: “This way I remember Syria. I remember home.”
At one-and-a-half times the size of New York City, Domiz Camp in Northern Iraq is home to over 26,500 refugees who have been forced into displacement. Refugee camps are by their very design temporary, but for the foreseeable future this is far from a short-term solution. Since the first tent was put up in 2012, this refugee camp has grown to 1,142km2.
Now, canvas has been replaced with breeze block homes, and micro-businesses are springing into action. Along with this, nature too has found its way into the camp, with the helping hand of humans.
As Avine was working on her garden, she saw a group of people looking at other green spaces in the camp. This turned out to be The Lemon Tree Trust, an organisation taking greening initiatives to refugee camps in the Middle East. Avine invited the organisation to visit the garden she had created outside her own home.
Now, Avine works as a pathways facilitator with The Lemon Tree Trust. She started by helping with door-to-door surveys to establish people’s gardening needs, and has met people within the camp that she may otherwise never have met.
On a small plot of land, an organic demonstration garden has been set up. Fruit and vegetables grow in a polytunnel, whilst a women’s and children’s garden offers a place for children to play safely. From this small piece of land, people are harvesting broccoli, radishes, onions, and other seasonal vegetables. This is the work of the people living in the camp, facilitated by The Lemon Tree Trust.
The produce grown here is offering refugees some semblance of food sovereignty, but it is a tiny part of the motivation behind the project.
Carrie Perkins, a project director at The Lemon Tree Trust, explains: “Food is a piece of it, but it’s so much more about the social issues and people wanting to take back control of their lives in some way. Gardening creates autonomy. You’re reshaping the space around where you live.”
For those who cannot foresee a return to their home country, this is a way of feeling human again, she says: “It’s really about community, and people coming together, and all of these things which aren’t directly related to food.”
In Domiz, there was a need for communal space, for shade and somewhere offering respite, but also a need for an activity people could share and bond over.
This is not about imposing ideas, but about supporting people with what they already know how to do. Some people in the camp had even brought their own seeds on their journeys from Syria, others had gone to great lengths to source them. Whilst the charity brings the tools, seeds, and training, the rest is down to the very people who call this camp home. The project is refugee-run, and there are even employment opportunities.
Alongside food sovereignty and community building, there are other benefits to micro-gardening inside the camp; planting flowers beautifies the space; growing vegetables can provide a sense of purpose; and planting trees around homes creates privacy, a sound barrier, and protection from the desert dust. There are also business opportunities that come with growing, and the Lemon Tree Trust offers financial support for small agricultural businesses within the camp.
Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of micro-gardening in refugee camps, is its place in helping to deal with trauma: the trauma many will have faced in their home countries, in escaping those places, and in adjusting to living day-to-day in a new place that comes with its own set of challenges.
“Lots of people made the comment that just seeing green brings them peace,” Carrie says. “These things become amplified in importance in the context of forced migration.”
Now, the group’s work is reaching out beyond this camp, in partnership with Lush and Mercy Hands. Assembled by refugees in Domiz (who are paid a wage), crisis response garden kits are being sent out to other camps across the Middle East. Small home gardening kits provide seeds and tools, whilst larger community kits have enough materials to start a community garden. Leftover tent canvas is also being given a new lease of life, and made into kit bags.
For those displaced from their home countries, agriculture may not be a high priority. However, as communities start to form, The Lemon Tree Trust has found that gardening is one of the first things people start doing. By offering their support, groups like this are encouraging a sense of belonging, peace, and humanity.
The Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
In Lebanon, Syrian refugees are forbidden from planting anything in the ground. They are given food vouchers by the World Food Programme, but with large families to feed, vegetables are an expensive luxury that many people cannot afford. Without nutritious food, malnutrition has become a problem.
When SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon - a sustainable agriculture organisation - was asked by the World Food Programme (WFP) to help create a food security solution for Syrian refugees, the group had to find a way in for nature whilst respecting the law of the land. The group found its answer in the form of plant containers - if they could not plant in the land, they would plant on the land. Pallets, jute bags, and small tanks have become planters, and any waste materials that can hold soil have found a new place in the microgarden.
The are over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and in 2016 SOILS had the funding to support 120 beneficiaries over six months. The group decided to take the project into a few small camps, which would be easier to manage and likely produce better results.
Amani Dagher, project coordinator at SOILS, says she and her colleagues started by visiting eight camps to assess water access, the availability of space, and most importantly whether the people living there were interested in having a microgarden. They spoke to the head of each community, and explained the project.
“We wanted to ask the Syrians in the camp if they were interested. We knew that if they were not, the project would not be a success. If they were interested, we said we’d do the project,” Amani says.
Once the planting began, both SOILS and Syrian refugees worked side by side. The nutritious chard, okra and spinach that the WFP requested grew alongside the plants the community had chosen for themselves: familiar flavours like chilli, armenian cucumber, and tomatoes. To support the crops, marigold and lavender offered natural pesticide services, whilst brightening the landscape of a refugee camp.
This was the first time SOILS had run a project with refugees, and there were many lessons along the way. The initial physical phase, where heavy items were lifted and manual labour was intense, coincided with Ramadan. To show solidarity with those fasting, the SOILS team took to working in the evenings instead. There were yet more challenges: water was limited, fires accidently broke out and caused setbacks, and the project date meant working through tough climatic conditions.
But the hard work paid off. After only two months, the camps were harvesting their crops. In one camp, 20 kg of tomatoes and 20 kg of aubergines added valuable nutrition to the community’s diet. All this came from only three or four seedlings of each species.
Amani remembers, “They were motivated when they worked and got production from their gardens. They were happy - especially the women and children.”
In Amani’s experience, children have been the most eager to embrace gardening, and she says they are often the best caretakers of the land. Human Rights Watch reports that half of all Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are growing up without an education. With the opportunity to look after a garden and to learn from workshops about water management, compost, and seed collection, they have found something to fill the void that a lack of education creates.
However, micro-gardens have not flourished everywhere. Amani says: “We had different results from camp to camp, from family to family.”
In many of the camps, people were sceptical of bringing nature to a place that they saw as temporary. A reminder perhaps, that whilst a project works for one community, it cannot always be replicated into another unique set of circumstances.
For the camps that have welcomed gardening, the benefits go way beyond a source of fresh vegetables. In an arid region, flowers now grow and people can take satisfaction in picking their own vegetables. Communities are strengthened as they help each other tend to plants. As they learn about organic gardening and grow their own crops, there is the chance to forget about the situation of being in a refugee camp, if only for a moment.
The funding for this project might have only lasted for six months, but another group, Bouzourna Jouzourna, has stepped in to continue the work for those who wish to take part, and so some of these micro-gardens are still growing today.
Meanwhile, the work from SOILS continues in the form of other sustainable agriculture projects in Lebanon, some of which are funded by Lush.
Rethinking refugee camps
Bringing the permanence of nature into something as temporary as a refugee camp is not an idea that resonates well with everyone. As SOILS discovered, there is even resistance within some refugee communities.
The Lemon Tree Trust experienced resistance from local authorities when the group first presented the idea of regreening a refugee camp, but Carrie had numerous persuasive counterarguments. She told the authorities about the immediate effects of greening: environmental benefits, creating shade, providing a way for people to deal with trauma, and community cohesion. She told them about the opportunity to save money by reusing wastewater, and the jobs that could be created for refugees.
According to Carrie, there is really only one major barrier which stands in the way of regreening refugee camps - the idea that a refugee camp is temporary.
Photos from top: Domiz garden; Plant containers in Lebanon; Domiz garden. Courtesy of SOILS and Lemon Tree Trust.