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Urban agriculture in Palestinian refugee camps

MAT / In refugee camps all over Lebanon and Syria, the Palestinian aid organization Jafra Foundation has been responsible for urban cultivation – with organic and short-lived herbs and vegetables. But the societal benefit extends further than that. They build planters, provide soil, compost, small plants, seeds and access to water.


In the past, most of the Palestinian refugees were farmers, but had to stop farming when they were expelled to the camps outside Palestine," explains Wesam Saban, leader for jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development.

This is a Palestinian organization that works with participatory approaches to strengthen the resilience of Palestinian society, with a special spotlight on the Palestiniane the refugee camps in Syria og Lebanon. The Jafra Foundation works to strengthen all aspects of Palestinian society. They arrange for young people to take responsibility in the local environment and get involved in humanitarian work. The foundation carries out thorough needs assessments in the various camps, and urban agriculture has proven to be an effective tool for solving multiple needs through one program: improving food security, creating employment as well as creating arenas for volunteering and community building – while promoting Palestinian identity , traditions and culture.

Volunteers from Jafra help the roof farmers to build beds and fill them with soil, plant small plants and give tips and advice on how to achieve the best possible result. Photo: Jafra Foundation

“Some of the refugees continued to work in agriculture after they had to move here, but as the population grew, less and less land became available for farming – Palestinian refugee camps are some of the most densely populated areas in the world. This led to many instead looking for work in the cities, the construction industry and other businesses," explains Sabaane.

The first experiment took place in a landfill converted into an urban cultivation project.

"The investment in urban agriculture began during the siege of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria in 2014-2015 as a result of the severe food shortage that followed," explains Sabaane. Due to the lack of available green spaces inside the camp, the first experiment took place in a rubbish dump which was cleaned up and turned into an urban cultivation project. Since then, the Jafra Foundation has learned a lot about urban agriculture and received international aid funds to spread the initiatives to several other Palestinian refugee camps.

Receives training in organic farming

Back in 2018, Jafra launched its ambitious urban revitalization programme agriculture in Palestinian camps, supported by the German NGO WeltHungerHilfe. Today, the project has spread to three camps: Burj El Barajneh and Shatila i Beirut, and Ein El Hilweh in southern Lebanon. They create gardens and teach organic farming – by using underutilized rooftops. Residents of the camps where these programs are run can apply to participate in the programs run by Jafra. The foundation then provides training and knowledge transfer by bringing a team of a specialist agronomist and young volunteers to help build and plant such new gardens.

With creative reuse and smart solutions for composting and water collection, a small roof area can be put to good use. Photo: Jafra Foundation

Ayman Ayoub is one of the new urban farmers, living in the camp Shatila. He was inspired after seeing the crops on a friend's roof: "I contacted Jafra and they helped me arrange to grow plants on my roof and it works really well," he explains. A team of trained gardeners from Jafra helped establish the small urban farm, which is built mainly from recycled materials. Ayoub also emphasizes the mental health aspects of the rooftop garden: “I can say that taking care of the plants is a way to relax and improve your mental health. At the same time, the crops are very important.”

On a rooftop in the Burj El Barajneh camp, Naseem has Al-Einein created their own green sanctuary. His message to everyone is to do gardening, because inside the camp they have no green landscapes, so they have to plant their own rooms. He adds: "These vegetables you grow yourself are much better than the ones you buy from the markets that are grown with chemicals."

The food tradition mouneh

Jafra is currently working on expanding its grow+project to reach all Palestinian camps. They map areas on roofs and other places that can be used. In addition to providing fresh produce to the local communities, the program also creates employment opportunities. Some of the crops are used in a food distribution program where women's groups produce meals that are given to the most needy households in each neighbourhood. In addition, these women's groups are also involved in mouneh, which are traditional food preservation techniques such as drying, canning, juicing or pickling. Engaging in this helps preserve traditional culinary techniques, as well as preserving food for later use.

"Ecological competence is crucial for Jafra", explains Sabaane. "By targeting the most vulnerable communities and building their skills and knowledge in this field, we are helping to ensure the resilience and food security of the Palestinian camps," he adds. "Our main challenges are the space limitations in the densely populated camps, and little knowledge of cultivation on the roof, as this requires specific expertise. We solve this by providing resources to the participants, building plant boxes and containers, and providing soil, compost, small plants, seeds and access to water. And we train people in good cultivation methods and facilitate the sharing of knowledge. To be able to safeguard and scale up these initiatives, we need continuous support from donors," he says. He emphasizes that the Jafra Foundation is a well-organised and transparent organization with considerable experience in cooperation with foreign donor and aid organisations.

Rooftops, vacant lots and vertical cultivation methods

Urban agriculture enables city dwellers to participate actively in food production, and promotes self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of external challenges. Through innovative methods, sustainable use of resources and community involvement, urban cultivation becomes a transforming force to ensure a more stable and secure food supply. These Palestinian initiatives in the refugee camps show a new direction that larger societies in the Middle East and beyond can learn a lot from. Urban agriculture also has the potential to strengthen food security in other densely populated cities that suffer from a lack of fresh produce at affordable prices.

A food distribution program where women's groups produce meals for the most needy households in each neighbourhood.

By utilizing available areas such as rooftops, vacant lots, and vertical farming methods, cities can produce fresh, locally grown produce to meet the dietary needs of their growing populations. This decentralized approach reduces the community's reliance on importing food from distant sources, thereby reducing supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations.

Cultivation projects in the camps not only improve urban nature green areas and crops, but also acts as a catalyst for environmental, cultural and national action. By sharing surplus products, it promotes a sustainabilityig lifestyle, strengthens family ties and builds community connections. In addition, the plants clean the air, attract pollinating insects, and create a more pleasant environment. The planted areas also serve as spaces for educational and recreational activities, engaging residents of all ages.

Foundationauthor of the article/interview is Helene Gallis. Project developer R&D / professional leader social sustainability. FRAGMENT AS.

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