Refugee Gardens: Hope Planted in Exile

Garden in Tsore Refugee camp, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia, July 11, 2018. (Photo by Mulugeta Ayene / UNICEF Ethiopia) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

By Sunny Lewis

LONDON, UK, March 19, 2019 ( News) – In this, the eighth year of the Syrian War, life in Syrian refugee camps is undermined by trauma, poverty and homesickness. Yet in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, green sprouts of hope are shooting up.

The desert camp near the city of Mafraq is now Jordan’s fourth largest city, home to more than 81,000 people. Zaatari residents have been planting their own gardens, offering families and friends solace and a vital means of fresh sustenance to complement the staple grains provided by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

“Gardening allowed them to make something with their hands and gave them a sense of accomplishment. We have seen an incredible change in them,” says Mohammad Abu Farah, a staffer from partner Save the Children, the nonprofit that leads gardening workshops for the children of Zaatari camp.

An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world had been forced from home by conflict and persecution at the end of 2016. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

United Nations says, “The world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.”

Many Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, often multiple times, making Syria the largest displacement crisis in the world with 6.3 million people internally displaced and almost four million people registered as refugees in neighboring countries. The UN refugee agency says an estimated 4.53 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in hard-to-reach areas and besieged locations.

Turkey hosts over 2.9 million registered Syrians. The majority live in urban areas, with around 260,000 living in 21 government-run refugee camps. There are more than a million registered Syrians in Lebanon and 660,000 in Jordan.

Iraq has also seen a growing number of Syrians arriving, and is now hosting at least than 241,000, while in Egypt the UN High Commission for Refugees provides protection and assistance to more than 122,000 people.

Palestine refugees are especially vulnerable with an estimated 460,000 people receiving regular assistance.

Two of the most active refugee gardening support groups are headquartered in London.

Room to Heal, a human rights charity and therapeutic community based in London, supports refugees and asylum seekers who have survived torture, trafficking and other human rights abuses to rebuild their lives in exile.

Mark Fish founded Room to Heal in 2007, after being profoundly moved by his experiences working as a psychotherapist in conflict resolution in Northern Uganda.

Room to Heal began in a garden, born from the wish of five refugees desperate for some green space in which to feel free. A corner of London’s beautiful Culpeper Community garden was found, where each week, they would sit and talk in a therapy group, eat together and work on the garden.

The need for connectedness to nature, and to each other, was the genesis of Room to Heal. This small patch of earth has grown and taken on huge symbolic significance, informing the group’s holistic therapeutic approach.

For many Room to Heal members, life at home involved working the land. Their violent removal from the land and the difficulties of life in London mean that gardening together as a group is important to take people back to a happier time of their lives before the trauma.

Relating to life through the metaphor of nature, the changing seasons, the responsibility of tending to something, slowly helps to heal the “shattered self” that had been deeply damaged through torture, says .

One Room to Heal member said about working in the garden, “You give life to something that didn’t exist before and that is exciting!”

Another Room to Heal member wrote:

The garden is like paradise for us –

when I came here I was very depressed and without hope.

It was winter and now for me it’s spring.

When I’m working in the garden,

my mind goes quiet

and I’m peaceful for a while.

Watch Room to Heal’s short film “The Garden” to get a glimpse of what it means for members to feel this sense of belonging and peace.

Also in London, the nonprofit Lemon Tree Trust, established in 2015, supports gardening initiatives in refugee communities as a way to restore dignity, purpose and cultural identity. The Trust provides seeds and plants, and helps refugees enter garden competitions and education centers.

Stephanie Hunt, founder and CEO of the Lemon Tree Trust, says, “Here at the Lemon Tree Trust, we are honored to work with refugees everyday. Gardening has the power to aid and accelerate the process of healing and this is as true for children as it is adults.”

Lemon Tree Trust announced new projects in Greece to mark World Refugee Day, June 20, 2018, just weeks after first ever “refugee garden” at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London. Formally known as the Great Spring Show, this is a garden show held for five days in May by the Royal Horticultural Society on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

Working alongside field partners Metadrasi in Athens and on Lesvos, and Lighthouse Relief in Ritsona camp, the Lemon Tree Trust is now supporting the creation of gardens for unaccompanied children.

A nine year old girl, who now lives unaccompanied in Ritsona, said she is pleased with the garden project. “We had so many flowers in Syria,” she said. “This garden makes me happy.”

Hunt said, “We support garden initiatives in Greece for unaccompanied children, projects designed to interest the children in nurturing plants to aid their physical and mental wellbeing as well as occupying them on a daily basis.”

In November 2018, the Lemon Tree Trust welcomed Princess Tatiana of Greece and Denmark as vice president of business development. Princess Tatiana of Greece and Denmark, born Tatiana Ellinka Blatnik, is the wife of Prince Nikolaos, son of Constantine II, who reigned as King of Greece until the monarchy was abolished in 1973.

The princess will play an integral role in making Lemon Tree Trust’s vision a reality – to expose every refugee community in the world to gardens and agriculture.

Lemon Tree Trust videos can be viewed here: Vimeo

Abu Qasem and his family fled from Syria after their farm was shelled and his daughters and son were injured. They have been living in Zaatari camp since 2013. (Photo courtesy World Food Program USA) Public domain.

Refugee Gardens Grow in the United States

Despite the anti-migrant and anti-refugee views of President Donald Trump, refugees in the United States are growing gardens, based on the policies of former President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017.

The Global Garden Refugee Training Farm, located on Chicago’s busy Lawrence Avenue, is a green refuge for people who farmed in their native countries. With the language barriers and the idea that their farming skills have no use in a big, American city, many battle feelings of isolation as they try to settle in.

The one-acre organic farm exists to help integrate refugees into their new lives in Chicago. Most are former farmers from Bhutan and Burma, now called Myanmar.

“Being here [in the city] they feel themselves really worthless,” said Hasta Bhattarai, a Bhutanese refugee who now volunteers as an interpreter for some of the gardeners. “But once they are here [in the garden] and once they are able to produce something, that really makes them happy from inside,” he continued, “and they feel themselves [like] they are back home, and that gives them some kind of spiritual happiness.”

The garden began with a grant from the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, under the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. In its first year, the garden had 42 families with plots.

By its third growing season in 2014, the garden had more than 100 vegetable beds on one acre. The gardeners grow bittermelon, bok choy, okra and mustard greens.

The story of Amina Mohamud of Boise, Idaho, epitomizes the type of successes refugee women across the United States are achieving. Mother of eight children now ranging in age from five to 19, Mohamud fled her home country of Somalia at age 19 due to ethnic persecution. She spent nine years in refugee camps in Kenya until her family was resettled to Boise, Idaho in 2005.

In 2010, she began working in her husband Yussuf’s plot, part of the Idaho Office of Refugees’ Global Gardens project, funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Mohamud sold the family’s produce at the local farmers’ market. In 2011, she decided to cultivate her own plot after receiving grant assistance from ORR’s Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program.

With help from her children, Amina produced vegetables for Boise’s weekly Capital City Public Market, Global Gardens’ community supported agriculture, and several wholesale customers. She learned to grow, harvest, wash and package vegetables for future sale. While running this business, Mohamud managed to improve her English, math and driving skills.

Mohamud decided to use her cooking skills to increase the revenue from the farm. With Global Gardens’ help, she secured a small business loan to buy a fryer and other supplies and now sells homemade African sambusas at the farmers’ market. She can continue to sell sambusas after the growing season is over, extending her income into the fall and winter months. This year Mohamud used her farm income to pay for her oldest daughter’s wedding.

In camps or in cities, wherever refugees can get their hands into the soil and nurture foods and flowers, their hunger is satisfied and their spirits are lifted from their troubles to a new vision of beauty and hope.

Featured image: Gardeners who are members of the Lemon Tree Trust work the earth atCulpeper Community Garden, London, UK. April 2018 (Photo courtesy Lemon Tree Trust) Posted for media use.

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