Greening the Camps brings food and hope to refugees

The project helps refugees gain a sustainable livelihood by growing their own vegetables on rooftops.

Unique venture. Greenhouses built on the rooftop of Jadal Centre for Culture and Knowledge in Amman. (Greening the Camps)

2017/10/22 Issue: 128 Page: 21

The Arab Weekly
Roufan Nahhas

Amman - A group of self-motivated young people have em­barked on a unique ven­ture to design, develop, build and maintain roof­top gardens in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. It is expected that the gardens would enable residents to grow vegetables and reconnect with their heritage of farming.

Greening the Camps, a non-profit organisation, is led by foreign and local volunteers from different backgrounds who share a passion for the environment and making the world a better place.

Machiel van Nieuwenhove, Greening the Camps’ 25-year-old co-founder and designer, described the initiative as “a dream that has become practice.”

“It is a realisation of theory and research by design. Imagined by the brains and built by the hands of many volunteers, this incremental project carries a tangible vision for a green and common future of plen­ty for all,” van Nieuwenhove said.

The initiative was tested at Jadal for Knowledge and Culture centre, an open space for activities in Am­man.

“On Jadal’s roof and by recon­structing the existing shacks we were able to build two greenhouses, one to provide shelter for non-sea­son-related plants while the second is home to hydroponic cultivation, a method to grow plants with nutri­ent water instead of soil,” he said.

To keep up the high standard of environmental friendly farming, the team built an organic compost installation that provides nourish­ing soil and extracted juice that is used as natural fertiliser known as “compost tea.”

“After six months of working on the first experimental rooftop farm at the centre, we saw growing inter­est in the project,” van Nieuwen­hove said. “We saw this as a sign that we are doing well regarding urban farming in general and in the camps in particular.”

Greening the Camp’s next project is to take place at Jerash Camp, one of ten officially recognised Pales­tinian refugee camps in Jordan and home for more than 29,000 people. It is among the poorest in Jordan. More than half of the people there live below the national poverty line.

“When analysing the natural environment, we noticed that the dense concrete fabric of the camp lacks the necessary fertile lands. This scarcity of green space in com­bination with an acute shortage of water in the region has caused a severe disconnection of the current generation with agriculture,” van Nieuwenhove said.

The project in Jerash camp is to be built with the help of local vol­unteers on the 80 sq. metre rooftop of a vocational school, using mate­rials from the camp itself.

“Rooftop gardens insert a green oasis where the community can grow its own food, find rest and fos­ter their connection with nature,” van Nieuwenhove said. “We envi­sion our project as a step towards improving the refugees’ living situ­ation.”

Greening the Camps volunteers are from various countries, includ­ing Belgium, the Netherlands, Ger­many, Sudan, Czech Republic, Can­ada, Denmark, the United States, Italy, Syria, the Palestinian territo­ries, Iraq and Jordan.

Funding is a main challenge that the group is facing, van Nieuwen­hove noted. “Without funding, the work goes slower but the financial limitation has a positive side. Since every dollar is valuable to us, we think and rethink every invest­ment,” he said.

“It also drives us towards recy­cling every resource we can possi­bly find. That’s the way we should work in the camps. Making proto­types accessible and replicable to a large audience, cheap and easy, yet of high quality and durable.”

Another challenge is water scar­city. While Amman is supplied once a week with water, camps have ac­cess to water every two weeks or once a month.

“We are doing calculations for how to build a rainwater harvesting installation to gather enough water in winter to supply a rooftop farm for an entire year,” van Nieuwen­hove pointed out.

He said turning consumers into producers makes them more inde­pendent financially. “Growing your own food and selling the surplus helps a family save money that can be spent on a wider diet or better health care and education,” he said.

“Moreover, a spacious outlet, ac­cess to healthy food and physically relieving work in an emancipat­ing project for both genders will, hopefully, improve the mental and physical health as well as the finan­cial situation of families.”

“If our organisation can play even the smallest role in strength­ening people in these fields, we are proud to do so… A well-fed and ed­ucated refugee is a stronger person than a deprived refugee struggling for justice,” he added

Greening the Camps has been depending on the private sector for funding, van Nieuwenhove said.

“There is no involvement from the government yet,” he said. “We are looking into the private sector to find the right partners.”

Roufan Nahhas, based in Jordan, has been covering cultural issues in Jordan for more than two decades.

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