Princess Tatiana of Greece lauds Iraq's refugee camp gardens at Dubai conference

She says gardening has the power to bring beauty, belonging, food security and economic stimulation to displaced people

Princess Tatiana of Greece, left, is part of The Lemon Tree Trust, which brings gardening initiatives to Syrian refugees living in Iraq. Photo by Kastro Youssef
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“If you plant a garden, you have belief in the future,” says Princess Tatiana of Greece, who earlier this month spoke, very movingly, on behalf of The Lemon Tree Trust at the 16th Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition, which was themed around people on the move.

Lemon Tree Trust provides seeds and kits, and runs a gardening competition across refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, and judges the gardens based on their size, as well as criteria such as edible and ornamental plants, and recycling efforts. Princess Tatiana is the vice president of business development for the Trust, and is responsible for securing partnerships to support the organisation in its ambition to bring gardening initiatives to every refugee community in the world.

"I know it can sound frivolous to speak of flowers and gardens of roses when we are here addressing the humanitarian crisis of our times," Princess Tatiana says. "There is no doubt we are desperately in need of solutions of crisis response and diplomacy towards geopolitical peace, but imagine, for just one second, your life in black and white. Imagine all the colour erased. Lemon Tree Trust works to undo this, we spread joy and beauty in everyday life; elements that symbolise the dignity with which we treat one another as fellow humans, on common ground." 

'A table of love'

The vast Domiz refugee camp in Iraq, like many camps across the region, is an accidental city. Yet, when Tatiana visited, she found that in adversity, there is hope; determination is manifested through the communal green spaces and gardens ­cultivated by these residents displaced by war. 

The power of green spaces in supporting well-being and mental health in such places is not to be underestimated – the act of gardening provides autonomy, allowing a sense of control, routine, and a sense of purpose and responsibility.

Women are working on their raised-bed gardens, which are part of the Liberation Garden, founded by the Lemon Tree Trust Foundation.

Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq is established in 2012 and provides shelter for primarily Syrian Kurds. Since 2015 the British NGO the Lemon Tree Trust supports the development of urban agriculture and greening innovation for refugees and displaced people and promoting food production well-being and community. With the refugee community in camp Domiz The Lemon Tree Trust organises a community garden and supports gardening around the shelters.  ©2018 Photo by Dirk-Jan Visser

"I expected broken spirits," says Tatiana of her visit to the camp. "I was expecting to feel my heart break. Instead, I walked into a green oasis, filled with children and women, and a long welcoming table overflowing with plates of eggplant, salads and sweets. It was a table of love, and a simple way to maintain a sense of family, dignity, identity and religion."

The princess drew a simple analogy around a glass jar filled with marbles to address the role that Lemon Tree plays in the refugee crisis, with the jar representing the crisis and the marbles representing the familiar organisations that provide aid for displaced people. "But even though this jar is full to the brim, there still exists some space between the marbles, and we at Lemon Tree see ourselves as sand that flows through the marbles, filling in the spaces," she says. 

“We do this by enabling communities to build themselves from the ground up, quite literally, through the seemingly simple activity of gardening. For displaced people, gardening in the short term engenders beauty, community and belonging. It brings food security and ­environmental regeneration and, in the longer term, it contributes to economic stimulation and opportunities to integrate with host communities.”

Sharing a common bond

Many refugees arrive at the camp with seeds in their pockets. It was this simple and poignant desire to transplant a little of the essence of home in a foreign place that Lemon Tree has worked to facilitate with the introduction of its gardening competitions. The Trust distributes lemon trees and seeds, but otherwise the initiative is entirely community-­run, with competition co-ordinators spreading the word at camps by going to door to door to find would-be gardeners. In 2016, there were 50 entries for the competition from one camp.

We have become a family in the garden, we discuss life together, over tea, every day. When we are here, we forget the past and start the process of planning the future.

Entries tripled by the following year, while this year there are more than 1,500 entries expected from across seven camps, with awards to be distributed from next month. In addition to an overall winner, each camp is awarded cash prizes of between $100 (Dh367) and $300.

The Lemon Tree Trust also made its mark internationally last year when it was awarded a Silver-Gilt Medal for its competition garden at the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show, in conjunction with British garden designer Tom Massey.

Speaking about the women she met in Domiz, Tatiana says: "Their resilience in situations of trauma is a strength for organisations working with refugee communities. We asked a group of women to help to make our crisis response gardening kits. They didn't just make the bags; they took it upon themselves to hand-embroider messages of hope and solidarity for the people who were receiving these kits."

As one camp resident puts it: “We have become a family in the garden, we discuss life together, over tea, every day. When we are here, we forget the past and start the process of planning the future.”