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Teaching permaculture in refugee camps

Rosemary Morrow of the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute and Permaculture for Refugees (P4R) talks to Lush Times writer Katie Dancey-Downs about her work. Shortlisted for the Spring Prize 2018 Influence Award, Rosemary teaches permaculture in refugee camps and war-torn areas which, she says, is about so much more than simply introducing a gardening project

In a refugee camp in Kurdistan, people are preparing to return to their home city of Mosul. With them, they will be taking their newly-acquired skills in permaculture - a system of practical farming techniques that work with nature rather than against it, and can help restore damaged ecosystems.

Now, when they look at the grey water running through their home streets, or need a way to protect themselves against the sun beating down on them, the lessons they have learnt from permaculture will likely provide the solutions they seek.

At the very beginning of their permaculture journey, the students’ permaculture design teacher, Rosemary Morrow, asks them to start by working on their homes in the camp. This is a place made up of broad, dusty lanes, where people live in tents or have two small buildings and a yard, enclosed by a wall. The challenge is to make their surroundings softer, greener, and cooler.

The students are set specific tasks. They must think about where to create shade, how to block dusty winds, how to collect water and reuse greywater, and what crops could be grown. With limited food rations, a path towards better nutrition is a good place to start. Rosemary gives the students simple crops like tomatoes, parsley, and beans, with a pumpkin or two to cover the roof in summer. Soon, vegetables like aubergines and courgettes will be added to the mix. These crops grow fast, produce prolifically, and in addition, create much needed shade and nutrition.

The inspiration grows outwards from here, and they then turn their imaginations towards greening the streets outside their homes.

“People started with little technical knowledge,” Rosemary explains. “First they started dealing with the greywater which runs down the gutters, and learned how to treat it before using it to water fruit trees. Growing the latter would also mean they could have some shade in summer when the temperature rockets.”

Transforming a refugee camp

Rosemary and her students walk around the camp, looking at the slimy, black water in which children are playing. By using nature - a delicate mix of plants, oxygen, and sunshine - this water can be sterilized and cleaned, a welcome skill in a place with very little fresh water and plenty of scorching heat.

The students learn to identify the wind direction, and thus where they need to site windbreaks. They learn about the different types of trees they could grow in this climate; how to plant them, and what benefits - such as shade, fruits, and a source of timber - they will bring.

As the course advances, the students start to develop their own initiatives. Turning to water collection, they calculate how much rainwater they can collect from the roofs of sheds, storerooms, and even the Mosque, and identify where it can be distributed to community gardens throughout the dry season - these gardens, plus opportunities for land-based incomes, are also planned out by the students.

“The rainwater collection was their own initiative, inspired by a theoretical class. They had the vision to transform that camp,” Rosemary says. “The students also took a lot of the seed we gave them, and they gave it to others who hadn’t attended the class, telling them how to plant it. We didn’t ask them to do that, they just did it of their own accord.”

Some of these students will soon be returning to Mosul. Before they leave, they will be taking part in a World Vision Kurdistan initiative, where they will talk to recent arrivals in the camp, who will themselves soon become students on a permaculture course. The students will tell them about their experience in permaculture, and what they can expect to learn. This is the beginning of the course becoming refugee-to-refugee taught, which is Permaculture for Refugees’ (and Rosemary’s) ultimate goal.

Teaching permaculture

Kurdistan is just one example of where Rosemary’s work takes her. She made a pledge to herself early on in her career, that she would take permaculture to places that can’t easily access the teachers or knowledge. That can be anywhere, from Vietnam to rural Ethiopia, as it has been in the past.

Rosemary works with a small team from the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute in Australia, her home country. She may be working with displaced people right across the world, but she has strong feelings about how her own country is treating asylum seekers, describing the practice of sending people to Pacific islands instead of mainland Australia as “shameful.”

“I’ve seen what causes these mass migrations, seen the needless suffering, and so I have a profound and deep repugnance and loathing for war and violence,” Rosemary says.

After seeing the conditions refugees often live in, and after working in Southern Europe during the economic crisis, her thoughts crystalised: “There is a better way, and it is permaculture.

“We needed to transform refugee camps, places of unmitigated suffering, into eco-villages. This is possible and avoids wasting any human potential, while at the same time restoring ecosystems,” she says.

The first objective of her work in refugee camps, is to improve people’s immediate living conditions. Camps are regreened, refugees are skilled up, and, as a result of these measures, wellbeing is improved.

“Permaculture gives people something to think about - something they can actually get hands on with, and feel like a person again, someone with both hope and a future,” Rosemary explains.

Getting to the point where the students can design the camp for themselves is challenging. Courses often need to be translated into multiple languages, there are cultural differences to overcome, and the students often need to embrace new ways of learning - many of them, for example, are not used to actively participating in classes.

When Rosemary tries to talk about forests, perennial systems, and sustainability, she often hits another stumbling block - long, drawn-out wars in places like Afghanistan destroy the landscape, which means that some of the students have never even seen a forest. For Rosemary, reforesting as quickly as possible is vital. Once the trees come back, so will water, she says.

Rosemary now has a new ambitious goal. She wants refugees themselves to take over the teaching, and for them to go into other camps to share their knowledge. For this to happen, she says, there needs to be more support and facilitation from NGOs and camp managers. And beyond facilitation, they need to want the refugees to succeed in permaculture.

“Everything happens faster when refugees teach each other,” she says.

Rosemary has recently had a breakthrough, and it came from Kabul. Using small personal donations, she was able to fund the Afghan Peace Volunteers to translate the key texts from the permaculture design course into Dari, a language of Afghanistan.

In 2018, Rosemary ran a second Permaculture Design Course in Kabul, organised by the Afghan Peace Volunteers. This was against a backdrop of 40 years of war resulting in millions of internally displaced people. There were tanks in the street. Local people told Rosemary that in one village, the bombing was so intense that the people had no land left to bury their dead.

The translations that the Afghan Peace Volunteers have provided will now be taken into a refugee camp in Drama, Greece. Rosemary wants the translation work to continue, and, again, for refugees to be the ones doing the translating.

“You have to constantly keep your focus on refugees and their abilities and potential to do this. But to achieve this will mean we need to train more trainers.”

Permaculture for the future

Rosemary is very clear about one thing - this is much more than a gardening project; rather it is a holistic sustainability project - and her work goes far beyond regreening refugee camps.

The nature of a refugee camp, is that its inhabitants are likely to one day leave. When that happens, permaculture students could not only take their new permaculture skills to their homes, they can also leave behind a healthy piece of land, well stocked with fruit trees, grapes, olives, and shade trees. This can only be of benefit to the local communities, which Rosemary also wants to integrate into the permaculture work.

“Once a permaculture camp gets started, the gates need to open and local villagers, farmers, and other local residents need to be able to come and learn about permaculture and work with the refugees.” This, she admits, is a long way from becoming a reality but it is clearly a goal worth reaching for.

The final element to her work involves the future of the displaced people, and what happens when they return home. Permaculture could provide solutions - it could be a way to bring life back into war-torn cities, and offer better ways of rebuilding than existed before.

As of yet, Rosemary doesn’t know of anyone who has gone back to their original home with permaculture skills, but she is full of hope for this inspiring initiative. She may soon find out whether the permaculture skills learnt in the camp really can be put into practice when the students return home, when some of her students from the camp in Kurdistan return to Mosul.

What is so exciting about Rosemary’s work, is that it is not only about creating a better environment in the short term, it is also about creating viable and sustainable long term solutions. There are undoubtedly some wounds that can’t be healed. But if Rosemary’s vision is realised, permaculture could offer some incredible opportunities for people returning to cities ravaged by war. It could give people the skills to regenerate their surroundings, and show them how to harness the power of the natural world in order to create a more sustainable future.

Find out more about the Lush Spring Prize

Photos of a student's permaculture design and a group of students courtesy of Paula Paananen; Regeneration illustration by David McMillan.

Permaculture design students
Permaculture designs

We needed to transform refugee camps, places of unmitigated suffering, into eco-villages. This is possible and avoids wasting any human potential, while at the same time restoring ecosystems

Comments (3)


about 11 months ago

Hi! Do you guys have summer camp for kids? Thank you!!!

Lush Customer Care

about 10 months ago


Hi there! I'm afraid not.- Harriet


about 2 years ago

"My special thanks to Paula Paananen as we co-taught the course and dealt with the endless details of every day surprises and disappointments. Paula managed most of the bureaucratic demands of the project as well. Thank you Paula."