Horticulture helps refugees

As the bloody conflict in Syria enters its sixth year, there is little hope that Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan will return home in the near future. According to World Vision Canada, Jordan is hosting approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees. 

The presence of so many displaced and vulnerable people living in limbo in the Hashemite Kingdom is placing a heavy strain on host communities. However, one of the best ways to stabilize Jordan and help displaced vulnerable people is by providing resilience assistance. In an interview last year, Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), explained that resilience assistance goes “beyond relief to actually supporting people to stand on their own feet.” 

The UNDP and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are jointly responsible for the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP). According to Clark, the focus of the plan is to create livelihoods, vocational training and access to credit for refugees. Getting marginalized groups into the workforce and supporting basic services are also major priorities.

On Feb. 4, the United Kingdom will host the next international conference on the humanitarian crisis arising from the war. The London Conference on the Syria Crisis will generate much-needed pledges of financial support for the resilience agenda. When it comes to formulating resilience strategies, the United Nations should look beyond government and traditional humanitarian organizations for innovative ideas. 

For example, a newly established independent charity in the United Kingdom has put together a promising proposal for a project that would advance the resilience agenda in Jordan. The Hope through Horticulture project aims to teach refugees occupational skills in agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry. 

“We have involved people from a range of backgrounds — health, engineering, etc.,” explained Richard Byrne, one of the project’s organizers. He is a food security and livelihood specialist at Harper Adams University in the United Kingdom. “The project is a response to the dire situation that many refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict find themselves in within refugee camps in Jordan,” Byrne said in an email. 

“While the Jordanians and aid agencies are meeting their needs, this is an attempt to improve their lives and help them build on skills and develop new ones.” The project, if implemented, would focus on women and children. “There are many single-female-headed households in displaced persons centres — and this would aim to be a safe space where they could gain skills,” Byrne explained. 

“For children — they are vulnerable to a number of threats: exploitation, criminality, radicalization — this would give them an outlet and hopefully help with their education.” Byrne also views the project as “a vehicle to develop skills across the board — to help people find a new pathway.” 

For example, the project would “combine practical horticultural skills with numeracy, literacy and basic business skills,” states the project’s summary document. “Additionally, we know from numerous studies that agriculture and horticulture have many more benefits than just food and that they can bring positive mental health benefits,” said the professor. 

“What we are trying to do is bring a form of care farming to the refugee locations. We see the project as having three pillars: nutrition, mental health and education.” Syrian refugees are having a very tough time making ends meet. Prohibited, for the most part, from working legally in host communities, refugees and/or their children must seek work in the underground economy, working in exploitative conditions for meagre wages. 

But they have little choice. Last year, due to chronic underfunding by the international community, the World Food Programme was forced to slash food assistance for Syrian refugees, leaving many families without enough to eat. Malnutrition is not uncommon in refugees. Not surprisingly, supporting small-scale farming is one of the objectives of the UN resilience agenda. For that reason, the UN should take a good look at the Hope through Horticulture proposal. 

The project would begin by helping families or groups grow produce — such as tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini — in containers. “As the project builds, we will introduce chickens, which will help the fertility of the soil, introduce water collection methods, poly-tunnels and help people scale up,” Byrne said of the charity’s plan. 

“Ultimately, we should enable people to grow, preserve, sell and swap produce.” There isn’t much space in the refugee camps for farming. Byrne understands this challenge and has the expertise to overcome it. He teaches integrated land management, which he describes as “how to best use land for production, environment, soil, water, landscape, etc.” 

“Due to the constraints of land quality, water and climate, emphasis will be on the development of small-scale intensive production utilizing such concepts as permaculture,” states the summary document. But what is permaculture? Permaculture, explains Byrne, is “a way of looking at what you are growing and promoting interactions between plants, livestock to gain production benefit while promoting soil fertility, water and energy efficiency.” 

In a nutshell, permaculture is “very much about replicating natural ecosystems — and it works very well in limited environments — where climate, soil, water are not ideal.” According to Byrne, there are successful permaculture models in such arid environments as Australia, Malawi and Zambia. “We have some Jordanian partners who would be the principal enactors of the project, and we would be there to assist and do the ‘donkey work’,” he said. 

The project has yet to be approved by the United Nations. However, Byrne stated that the project has received “positive feedback” from British officials and “organizations directly involved with Syrian refugees who recognize the need to deliver sustainable multi-output livelihood responses to the crisis.” What is needed to make the Hope through Horticulture project a reality? 

“Money is one thing, but ideally this needs to be taken up by an international organization or NGO,” Byrne replied. “We are seeking sponsors principally from the agricultural industry,” Byrne said. “Farmers are a global community,” he added, noting that the project has “already had some great offers of assistance.” 

And he’s hopeful that it “can gain support from some agri-business companies.” Byrne said that he and the other architects of the project “have all worked in development or humanitarian relief and are conscious of the need to build resilience in communities, maintain skills, and allow people to live in dignified lives and contribute.” 

The Hope through Horticulture program is an intriguing idea, and it should be, if implemented, expanded to include not only refugee camps, but urban areas, as well. According to World Vision Canada, most refugees in Jordan are living in host communities or urban areas. Similarly, the UNHCR estimates that only 20 per cent of the Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR are living in refugee camps. 

Hope, work and dignity are perhaps the most important benefits refugees would derive from the project. “Working in agriculture, I’ve seen what it can do for people — that connection with the soil, accomplishing something tangible,” Byrne said. “When you first taste a homegrown tomato — it may be smaller than the supermarket and a wonky shape, but it tastes so much better.” 

by Geoffrey P. Johnston

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