Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Nurturing crops on the rooftops of a refugee camp in crisis


By Ruth Regan - April 26, 2018
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Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [refugee camps] [Amari camp] [sustainability]

Above the dense concrete of Am’ari refugee camp, green shoots are starting to sprout.

Members of the camp’s Women’s Program Centre are planting lettuce, tomatoes, za’atar and other spices. But strawberries are the firm favourite, being dedicated three rows, as the women say they are an unaffordable luxury to buy in Ramallah.
 
Am’ari is one of the smallest refugee camps in the West Bank, located east of Ramallah in the al-Bireh municipality. Just as much a part of the city’s landscape as the upscale Masyoun neighbourhood, where the Prime Minister lives a fifteen minute walk away, Am’ari’s maze like streets convey a different world.
 
“Many people think Gaza is in the war and the West Bank is in paradise. It’s not,” said Nadia Haboub, who works at the centre. Just three weeks ago IDF soldiers entered the camp in an overnight raid and arrested between 10 and 12 young boys. Houses were filled with tear gas and women were not given time to find their coats and hijabs before they were forced out to stand on the cold night streets.
 
Amal Shalatah, also working at the centre, explained how the sound of sirens are the only warning sleeping camp residents are given before their front door is blasted open. There is no knock and no privacy. Usually during raids she says 14 to 18 members of the family are gathered into a single room for up to 4 hours.
 
“Every day is Nakba ['Catastrophe’]. It doesn’t mean what happened to Palestinians in ’48. It’s a new Nakba every time they invade the camp,” said Shalatah.
 
Hamdi Hatu is supporting the women with the rooftop garden project. He taught himself horticulture on YouTube and then visited the UK with the British Council to discuss social action projects and increasing the function of roofs. On returning, he delivered a workshop for the women to share his learning. Hatu’s grandfather arrived in Am’ari as a refugee and worked with the UN, and his parents grew up in the camp. Although they eventually moved out, Hatu feels obliged to continue to support the camp.
 
“Just because my family improved their economic situation and left the camp doesn’t mean we’re not also responsible,” he said.
 
Everybody busy at work on the rooftop garden.
 
He has created his own hydroponic cylinders to plant in, ordering the material in bulk from construction companies and then making holes in the tubes. These are filled with soil and the idea is that less water is lost to evaporation, keeping as much water as possible in the soil, resulting in an efficient way to grow crops without ample water.
 
Hatu has invested his own wages in this project but is crowdfunding in order to complete it. He is wary of NGOs and the world of large donors, wanting to protect the project’s independence. He went on local radio last week to promote the campaign. The money he raises will go to more cylinders and extending onto surrounding rooftops.
 
Down below the quiet oasis being cultivated on this roof, the camp is in crisis. The women explained that UNRWA slashes has led to no rubbish clearance and a significant sewage problem as a result. Men from the camp are having to clear it themselves. The UN, they say, also used to support widowed women but are no longer able to. Teachers have left as wages were not being paid, so classes have had to integrate, resulting in up to 60 children in one class.
 
Shalatah said that where UNRWA used to cover roughly 50% of the cost of medical treatment, it has gone down to 15%. She explained that the leaves and roots of what they plant can be harvested for medicinal not just food purposes is an effort to fill this gap. She said that boiling za’atar in water can boost health and immunise from disease. This is no adequate substitute, however, to the fundamental right of access to healthcare.
 
The UN crisis affects “environmentally, socially and mentally,” Hatu said. “Women depend on this [Women’s Program] Centre.” It is a place they come to talk in their free time and support one another. Besides the rooftop garden, the women’s centre runs a morning crèche; an embroidery workshop, contributed to by some 50 women; supports disabled children and facilitates workshops to teach women skills, from a salon to cooking and sewing classes. A therapist visits once a month to support women through a range of personal difficulties, one of which is domestic abuse, with a high incidence in the camp.
 
This garden brings hope to these women.
 
“This [the camp] is a block of cement,” Haboub said. “Nothing indicates life and energy. When you can plant, this is a zone for comfort and energy and care. It’s like a new member for the family.”
 
The intention is also to increase sustainability. Hatu plans to host a harvest market on the rooftop to sell and swap the produce at the end of the season.
“The roof is a platform to inspire women,” he said.
 
The women say that some of the centre’s neighbours have noticed the growing rooftop garden and approached them for advice on how to grow things themselves. One windowsill in sight is now crammed with plant pots.
 
“My dream is to plant 1000 trees in the camp,” Hatu mused and he navigated his way through the fragile buildings on the squeezed streets. Asked whether this would normalise the situation of living in a camp, creating something permanent out of something intended as temporary, Hatu came back by saying rather, it means kids grow up asking important questions about their lost land. “Where is our land? What happened?”
 
Lead photo: Amal Shalatah gives the saplings some water after Nadia Haboub plants them in the soil.

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