The secret garden: greening refugee camps

By Myriam Fayad

Food and nutrition security are about the right for everybody to access nutritious, affordable and sufficient food. Even though undernutrition globally has diminished in the last two decades, from 18.6% to 12.5%, currently there are still more than 800 million people who suffer from shortage of food. Food insecurity is a serious challenge in many fragile countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, but this challenge is even greater in refugee context, where life standards are low and livelihoods opportunities are often volatile.

Kenya, Dadaab refugee camps. August 2011 | IHH Humanitarian Refugee Foundation

Displaced people often depend entirely on humanitarian assistance and suffer from chronic malnutrition or very restricted diets that do not include fresh fruits or vegetables. This reliance on aid, far from being a temporary solution, often becomes a protracted state lasting for decades turning camps into real neighbourhoods fully integrated into the city, as it happened for the 1948 Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.

With the introduction of gardens in a refugee context, dietary diversification and quality food availability could be addressed together with promoting other social benefits such as women’s empowerment, income generation and community promotion.

Gardening refugee camps: a lesson from Kenya

Urban gardening in refugee context was already promoted by UNHCR and WFP in the camps of Dadaab and Kakuma, Kenya, in 2006 to increase food security and support dietary diversity. These multi-storey gardens were particularly suitable for the location of the camps: a semi-arid region in Northern and Western Kenya, with very little rainfall. Taking little space and needing very low quantities of water, these gardens represented a unique chance for the inhabitants of the camp to increase food security and improve the quality of their diet, hence their overall wellbeing. The introduction of multi-storey gardens represented also a very cheap, and at the same time sustainable, intervention that costed only US$ 300,000 for a one-year project that lead to the creation of 5,155 gardens in Dadaab and 2,500 in Kakuma camp.

Gardening Refugee camps in Lebanon

Seven years after the beginning of the Syrian crisis, refugees in Lebanon struggle more and more to make a living and subsequently meet their basic needs. According to the Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees survey, 58% of households live in extreme poverty, meaning they live on less than $2.87 per person per day (5% more than a year ago). Among the many vulnerabilities Syrians must face, such as the difficulty to obtain legal residency in the host country, food insecurity is extremely critical, and many families run up debts by borrowing money to buy food. According to the survey, 77% of Syrian refugee households reported having experienced a lack of food or lack of money to buy food along with a deterioration of dietary diversity. In fact, because livelihoods opportunities are very limited and the challenge to obtain legal residency make it hard to enter the labour marker, refugees struggle to fulfil their basic needs without external assistance.

Refugee camps in Kenya. September, 2011 | IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation

In order to address food insecurity and malnutrition, some programs were implemented to promote income generation and stabilise the crisis. For instance, in 2017, Concern worked in the Northern rural region of Akkar to build 90 keyhole gardens in the informal settlements and it provided 900 refugees with gardening kits and training. These kinds of projects refer to the “greening innovation” approach to crisis, which links relief, recovery and development through gardening and planting trees. In fact, gardening refugee camps is much more than a sustainable source of income. It is also a catalyst for social cohesion and creating a sense of community and belonging.

The last time I visited Tel Aabbas Refugee camp in Akkar, two keyhole gardens had just been built and shoddily filled with soil. While families were already discussing what to plant and how to organize the labour, they were all proud to promise me homemade mahshi (vegetables filled with rice and meat) made with their own crop. It’s this pride, above all the economic benefits, that make keyhole gardens even more valuable.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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