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‘My garden is my life’

UK not-for-profit spearheads movement to green refugee camps in Northern Iraq
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Domiz Camp, Kurdistan desert, Northern Iraq

In the midst of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, which has forced millions of people to flee their homes and for some to seek refuge in neighbouring Northern Iraq, a small UK-based not-for-profit organisation is using urban agriculture and horticulture to bring together communities and restore dignity to broken lives.

Grow home

The Lemon Tree Trust is led in the UK by Dr Mikey Tomkins, an urban agriculture expert who has been using gardening and gardening competitions within the camps to inspire refugees to ‘grow home,’ and to highlight the potential for primary food production and large scale agriculture.

‘Forced migration results in trauma for young and old alike and far from being a temporary solution, refugee ‘camps’ provide homes for an average of 17 years. The heritage of growing plants to both sustain and enrich life is one that can be traced back to the very beginning of civilization and it is this heritage that we are drawing on in Domiz. We started three years ago, one garden at a time, and have found that with a little investment and some patience, ‘greening’ on a large scale is achievable and has wide ranging social, health and environmental benefits for everyone. One of the residents we have helped puts it quite simply: ‘My garden is my life’. That’s enough to keep us going and expanding.’

Urban agriculture expert

The ongoing work of Lemon Tree Trust in Domiz and its planned expansion to other camps will reach a global audience this year thanks to a collaboration with UK garden designer Tom Massey at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May.

Massey has designed a show garden inspired by the resilience, determination and ingenuity of refugees, highlighting the importance of gardens and gardening to thousands of displaced families.

‘People need a way to bring order to a chaotic situation, as well as a space to come together as a community and to learn about horticulture and water retention. The gardens, encouraged by the Lemon Tree Trust, are far more than spaces to grow familiar plants, vegetables and herbs; they become a statement of belonging, a representation of ownership and an embodiment of dignity.’

Garden designer

Beautifying concrete

Massey’s design draws on elements found in the gardens of refugees and intends to show visitors how brutal, harsh materials such as concrete and steel, that are widely available in the camps, can be made beautiful with techniques such as polishing, casting and crafting into intricate Islamic inspired patterns and designs.

Drought tolerant planting will educate visitors about the type of plants and crops refugees grow on their own plots. Ingenious vertical planting techniques, inspired by refugees’ use of everyday objects, and designed with their input, will showcase ideas for planting in limited spaces.

Trees laden with fruit, including figs, lemons and pomegranates, will provide scent and valuable crops to harvest and trade. Cooling and calming water will flow throughout the space, which will then be collected in channels and pools, recycled and pumped back through the brimming central Islamic inspired fountain, representing the importance of grey water reuse in the camps and the many makeshift fountains refuges have built in their own gardens.

Massey’s design speaks of what’s possible, what’s needed, and what’s longed for.

Avine Ismail’s garden, Domiz Camp

‘In this camp, being so far away, you try to remember something from your life in Syria. You try to find the same seeds of plants and flowers, the same pets, so you feel at home and comfortable for a while.’

One of 26,000 residents living in Domiz Camp, Kurdistan desert, Northern Iraq

The Lemon Tree Trust

The Chelsea Flower Show garden marks the third year of operations for Lemon Tree Trust, which started by running garden competitions inside refugee camps and donating lemon trees as a way to build connections.

‘In our first year, 50 families participated in the garden competition. In the second year, 150 families took part. The refugees became excited, camp management became excited, and the local government asked if we could expand to other camps. We knew we had found something that resonated with all stakeholders. We also knew it was just the start of something bigger.’

Founder of Lemon Tree Trust

The garden competition led to more ambitious and far-reaching Lemon Tree Trust projects, like the sourcing and distribution of a crisis response garden kit: an emergency ‘starter kit’ that provides agricultural support in the form of tools, seeds and information to crisis regions in Syria and beyond.

Over 1,200 kits were distributed in Syria in January 2018. A public demonstration garden has been established in Domiz camp, and there are plans to develop a large-scale orchard and community park project. The Lemon Tree Trust has started efforts in Syria and Uganda, with Jordan, Lebanon, and Greece also in plans.

‘We are seeing the positive social, economic, and mental health impact of green spaces, and it all started with a garden competition!’

Founder of Lemon Tree Trust

22.5 million refugees

In 2017, official UNHCR figures state that the number of displaced individuals worldwide reached 65.5 million, with 22.5 million of these being refugees. This is the highest level of displacement in history, surpassing even post-World War II figures.

UNHCR spokesperson Laura Padoan said that Tom Massey’s design encapsulates a sense of community and connection with the land – ‘elements that can be essential in helping to restore well-being for refugees’. She added that the Lemon Tree Trust is ‘doing innovative work by bringing agriculture into camps and providing refugees with a means to start rebuilding their lives.’

Click here to find out how you can help Lemon Tree Trust support refugees with essential garden supplies.

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