Greening the Camps brings food and hope to refugees
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.