'In my garden, I feel like I'm in my kingdom': the growing green spaces of Iraq's refugee camps

'I have run out of fingers on my hand to count the number of times a refugee has told me how they arrived [at the camp] with seeds. Imagine the presence of mind, in the midst of leaving everything they know, to still bring seeds in your pocket… to bring a little piece of home.'

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Look out of your window and picture the world without trees or plants of any kind. Many Syrians fleeing the conflict found themselves in such dreary surrounds when they arrived at the vast refugee camps in the dusty desert lands of Domiz in northern Iraq. This might explain why a gardening competition, which runs across five refugee camps in Iraq's Kurdistan region, received almost 1,000 entries this year – up from 50 when it launched in 2016.

The Lemon Tree Trust oversees the competition and judges the gardens based on their size and across a range of criteria such as edible and ornamental plants, and recycling efforts. In addition to an overall winner, each camp is awarded cash prizes of between US$100 and $300 (up to Dh1,100). Alfonso Montiel, chief executive of the Lemon Tree Trust, says: "I find it revelatory and I have run out of fingers on my hand to count the number of times a refugee has told me how they arrived [at the camp] with seeds. Imagine the presence of mind, in the midst of leaving everything they know, to still bring seeds in your pocket… to bring a little piece of home."

Figures from the United Nations refugee agency indicate that currently there are 68.5 million displaced people globally, the highest in modern history. It's not hard to envision how powerful and potent a simple flower can be in giving new hope to those who have been unfortunate enough to lose everything. The pursuit of cultivating and caring for plants in the desert evokes the scents and sights of much-loved green spaces that were abandoned in the disarray of war.

Providing an additional source of income, and much more

As Syrian refugee Aveen Ibrahim, who fled with her family from Damascus, says: “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.”

Khalid Ismael, meanwhile, has always loved gardens and birds, and compares his arrival in Domiz to an electric shock. “There was no tent for us at first, and some days all we had to eat was crackers and biscuits,” he recalls. “Then I decided I am going to create something beautiful here. In my garden, I feel like I am in my kingdom. It is proof that I still have something to give. And when I’ve finished gardening, I feel like I’ve got the world in my hand.”

Initiatives such as the gardening competition go beyond the daily grind of just surviving, and provide an additional source of income for refugees, including the many widows and their children who are present here. The provision of something as fundamental as seeds and plants helps to bring a sense of purpose to these fractured communities, and simultaneously works towards restoring their dignity, cultural identity and earning potential.

Growing food, and medicine 

The non-profit Lemon Tree Trust also encourages the development of urban farming within the camps as a means to support primary food production. In Domiz, the trust has developed the Liberation Garden – a space for communal urban agriculture, to demonstrate and support small-scale growing, and techniques such as greywater recycling and composting. It is a place where women can come together to work and children can come for an hour a day to learn about gardening. 

There is a provision for growing medicinal plants, which can be shared with the community, as well as enclosures to raise chickens and rabbits that are used to supplement the diets of those who find it hard to afford basic food rations. 

The project is supported by a decreasing subsidy model – revenue raised through selling produce and seedlings, which ultimately negates the need for outside support. Montiel says that the Trust prefers to frame their financial involvement as an "investment" rather than a "donation". Research conducted during the past three years has revealed that, in some quarters, there are still stereotypes associated with refugees that can block the economic potential of this able and experienced group of people. The Trust is trying to reverse this by harvesting their skills to work on commercially viable projects.


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Part of the garden is used for initiatives that provide additional platforms for the refugees to be trained in other aspects of horticulture and self-supporting businesses – notably, a rose farm. Camp gardens are already supplying some areas of agriculture and there are plans for commercial crops of roses to be harvested for either rose water or rose oil. Additionally, the trust distributes a crisis-response garden kit to newly arrived families at the camps, which contains tools, seeds and manuals, and is designed to get a small garden started. There are plans to roll out this initiative to other refugee areas, such as Greece and Jordan.

"The dream is always to go back to Syria, even if the country is reduced to rubble – they want to go back to rebuild. In the meantime, if there has to be a home, then this is a close as it gets," Montiel says.

The Queen: 'That is fascinating' 

The Lemon Tree Trust also made its mark internationally when it was awarded silver gilt for its competition garden at the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show earlier this year, in conjunction with British garden designer Tom Massey. He had previously visited the camps in Iraq and drew inspiration from the design elements he saw there, and used the show garden to highlight the creative and ingenious ways in which refugees were growing flowers and produce.

Montiel, a Venezuelan, admits that he inadvertently breached British royal protocol when the Lemon Tree Trust garden was honoured by a visit from Queen Elizabeth. Rather than waiting for the Queen to address him first, Montiel put a question directly to the monarch. “I said: ‘Your Majesty, we get lists from the refugees at the camp on what seeds they want, and I’m going to ask you to please guess the percentage between flowers and edibles on that list.’ 

“She looks at me and says: ‘I presume it’s a fascinating answer.’ I tell her, it’s 70 per cent flowers and 30 per cent edibles. She looks at the garden, and stays quiet, and then looks back at me and says: ‘That is fascinating.’

"Her Majesty repeated [the word] twice more. And it is. What we're doing is still fascinating to me and it is fascinating to think of the life-­changing potential [it has]," Montiel concludes.