Putting down roots: gardens and emerging cities in Kurdistan

Meet the organisation greening refugee camps, mitigating some of the effects of displacement caused by conflict and climate.

A decade on from the outbreak of civil war in Syria, millions of displaced people still live in the camps they once viewed as temporary.

As settlements planned for emergency shelter, sustainability is rarely built into the infrastructure of these camps, where immediate needs such as water, roads and power are prioritised.

However, with research estimating that 1 billion people could face displacement by 2050, increasingly due to climate change, it is clear that more integrated efforts for sustainable planning are needed in crisis settings. Refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) find themselves living in camps for indefinite periods, often decades.

Beyond meeting basic needs for survival, the protracted nature of camp living also necessitates those, seemingly more abstract, elements of life that provide hope, meaning and a sense of continuity.

For deeply traumatised communities, reconstituting a sense of place is integral to healing.

In response to both the psychosocial needs of refugees, and the long-term sustainability of camp infrastructure and food provisions, aid agencies and international NGOs are increasingly turning their gaze to community development perspectives.

In Domiz 1 camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, initiatives to enhance food security and sustainable resource use are becoming deeply entwined with therapeutic support and community cohesion. The nexus of these efforts can be found in the camp’s gardens.

The Lemon Tree Trust, a small international NGO based out of Dallas and the UK, is promoting access to green space within refugee and IDP camps. Its most innovative work so far has been carried out at Domiz 1.

Opened in 2012 and home to over 30,000 refugees, Domiz is more of an “emerging city” than a camp, says Jennie Spears of the Lemon Tree Trust.

Small personal gardens were already established when the Trust first arrived at Domiz. Many of the gardeners had packed seeds from home with their most valued belongings – a tangible connection to the gardens they left behind. Noticing a profound desire to grow, whether flowers for beauty or fresh food and herbs for cooking, the Trust began working with the camp managers to develop urban agriculture and greening innovation projects. The team view themselves as ‘facilitators of the process’, enabling and encouraging tree planting, gardening, agriculture and landscape improvement.

To date, The Lemon Tree Trust’s most significant contribution to camp greening in Domiz has been through the creation of garden competitions. First established in 2016, these annual competitions are a way of distributing plants and seeds and encouraging gardening in the camp, without imposing any top-down master plan. Cash prizes are awarded to winners, though many participants express this is not a primary motivation for entering and that they would spend the money on improving their gardens if they won.

Gardening as an activity can be a great source of pride, and the format of the competition continues to inspire many participants to find innovative and sustainable solutions to the resource issues present in the camp, in order to improve the quality of their gardens.

“People are completely ingenious and creative,” says Jennie. One camp gardener had reserved most of her grey water (domestic wastewater that has not been contaminated with faecal matter) for the sunflowers outside of her home. Meanwhile, her plot remained clean and dry with no wastewater streams, winning her third prize in the competition in 2016.

These competitions have not only encouraged growers to improve their home gardens and experiment with waste-water use, they have also helped to forge stronger alliances between the organisation and people of the camp, some of whom are now employed by the Trust to oversee and develop gardening projects.

Alongside the gardening competitions, the Trust helps to establish and manage community gardens. Here, refugees grow food for their families and neighbours, and enjoy the communal green space – a haven within the bustling camp environment. The gardens have also proved to be a lifeline during the pandemic, as the team ensured that these spaces could remain open with COVID measures in place.

At Domiz in particular, the gardens are an important buffer against food insecurity, housing a small colony of rabbits and chickens which provide meat and eggs, as well as a community oven which is fired up everyday for bread-making by the women who garden there. While food growing in Domiz is not currently at the level of sustaining whole neighbourhoods, let alone the entire camp, the team redistributes any surplus from the community gardens to vulnerable families in the camp.

In the coming years, Jennie says that the Trust will be focusing on the regeneration of biodiversity in Domiz, such as in trialing a perennial mix of flowers in some of the camp environments “to help encourage birds and pollinators back into the area and re-establish those biological systems that are required for sustainable gardening practices”.

There is, likewise, a consistent dialogue between the organisation and the gardeners around waste-recycling for resources like compost and water. Informal demonstrations regarding the use of productive, closed-loop systems are often held in the community gardens.

While the Lemon Tree Trust supports many refugee gardening projects across the world, Jennie stresses its commitment to building upon what they have achieved so far in Iraq. Rather than spreading itself too thin, the Trust is encouraging other organisations to replicate its “soft approach” to camp greening. It’s using what it’s learned from projects within Iraq to create a library of resources, which can be easily translated into other refugee settings.

The Lemon Tree Trust’s model works because it is simple.

Moving away from troubleshooting, the organisation takes a people-centred approach to community development. It provides a support system that enables refugee communities to empower themselves in the transformation of their environments.

Jennie makes it clear that their organisation is “rooted in gardening”, and that it is worth more than just the use-value of a green space. The main benefit will be the long-term impact on the people who are at the heart of these projects.

Georgie Hurst is a musician and postgraduate Environmental Anthropology student, currently researching food sovereignty and agroecology movements.

If you’d like to support the Lemon Tree Trust, consider a financial donation, donating to their seed appeal, or follow on social media and spread the message!