Philippe Pernot | Reporterre | August 1st, 2022 | Reportage – Worldwide
Translation | Link to the French version
Hundreds of gardens have sprung up on the roofs of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Planted by NGOs or residents, they serve as shelters and vegetable gardens in times of crisis. Is their model sustainable? (Image: Ahmad Zaazou, Palestinian resident and coordinator of the NGO Jafra in the camp of Bourj al-Barajneh, in Lebanon. – Philippe Pernot/Reporterre)
In this maze of narrow, labyrinthine streets, the sky is hidden by thousands of tangled electric cables and by the successive floors of buildings that threaten to collapse. Welcome to Bourj el-Barajneh, one of the twelve Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, near Beirut airport. Here, 30,000 people live in a single square kilometer: one of the highest population densities in the world.
To escape the suffocating alleys, you just have to climb a few flights of stairs to the sky. On the rooftops, oases bloom. Flowers, shrubs and cacti grow alongside tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, figs and herbs planted in containers. “It feels good to come here to grow my plants, I love them all,” says Maha Mohammad Dabdoub. “Since the divorce with my husband and the departure of my brothers to Europe, I was living in seclusion at home. Thanks to this garden, I can change my mind and invite my friends, I can enjoy things again.
Maha and more than a hundred other people have set up gardens and vegetable plots in their homes with the help of a Syrian NGO, Jafra. For nearly three years, the roof of the NGO’s headquarters in Bourj el-Barajneh has been used as a laboratory for experimenting with watering, composting and even chicken breeding techniques. It’s simple: residents attend workshops and trainings, and then Jafra helps them set up containers, soil and seeds – and even composters and fresh water supplies – in their homes.
Garden rooftops have sprung up all over the country, supported by several local and international NGOs; there are now several hundred of them, from north to south. But the model is not always viable and some agricultural actors are focusing on large collective gardens instead.
These initiatives have in any case gained importance since the beginning of the economic and social crisis that devastates Lebanon, one of the worst in the world. Faced with the devaluation of the Lebanese pound and inflation, many people have cut back on fruits and vegetables. “Rooftop gardens help entire families to feed themselves while saving money, and provide vitamins,” explains Patricia Van Muylder, Jafra’s communications officer. This is confirmed by Abeer Youssef el Kai, a mother of five. “We ate the mloukhié [vegetable cornet] from the garden throughout Ramadan, and I save $10 to $15 a month,” which is a third of the Lebanese minimum wage. Her garden also allows her to sell decorative plants to individuals, via Instagram, to secure an small income.
“Working the land brings me peace and makes me return to my roots”
Palestinian refugees live in difficult conditions: many jobs are forbidden to them, their unemployment rate exceeds 60%. Faced with discrimination, trauma and a sense of confinement, gardens are a precious escape. “I’ve seen too many atrocious things in my life. So when I come up here, I feel like I’m facing the sea and I forget everything,” says Abdallah Mahmoud Aswheh. The veteran of Fatah, the political movement of Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, shows his two scars. He lived through the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982 and the “war of the camps” between the Islamist militias of Amal, Hezbollah  and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). “Working the land brings me peace and brings me back to my roots,” he says, showing us his peppers, eggplants and his loubié [beans], a yellow cap with the effigy of Yasser Arafat on his head.
Hastily built after the nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948 to accommodate the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the first Arab-Israeli war, the camps were supposed to be temporary. Unfortunately, the Palestinians have never enjoyed their precious “right of return” and three generations are crammed into these ghettos where a state of exception and permanent siege reigns – between 250,000 and 500,000 stateless people, deprived of their Lebanese nationality and most of their political rights.
Lack of monitoring and transparency
Those who would like to plant in their homes face many obstacles. First of all, access to water: in the camps, running water is salty and unsafe, and fresh water is expensive to import. “In Shatila , many plants died of dehydration, because the inhabitants had to keep the fresh water for their own needs,” sighs Patricia van Muylder. In addition, the narrow alleys and crowded apartments make it difficult to set up planters and soil.
“Corruption and the ineptitude of some NGOs don’t help,” criticizes Ahmad Hamoud – not his real name – a volunteer with the US-based organization Anera in Nahr el-Bared, in the north of the country. It is one of the most marginalized camps in the country: since a month-long war in 2007 between the Lebanese army and an Islamist militia, it has been run by the army as a militarized zone. “The corruption and violence are immense, it is really a lawless place separated from the surrounding world,” says Ahmad. He recounts the difficult working conditions for minimal pay: “We carried 30 to 50 kilogram bags up several flights of stairs, only to find out that the plants we were supposed to put in were rotten.”
In addition, several barrels of sand would have disappeared from the premises of the NGO Anera, even though they are ultra-secure. “There were some for a few hundred dollars, they certainly sold them on the black market to make a profit,” he suspects. For him, the project “is a failure”, after only a few months, “because there was no follow-up, no transparency”. [Anera has not answered our multiple contact requests].
Garden rooftops have sprung up all over the country, supported by several local and international NGOs; there are now several hundred of them, from north to south. “These projects are sexy for donors but are essentially cosmetic and often far from sustainable,” criticizes Bashar Abu Seifan, an activist and co-founder of the Agricultural Movement. For him, it would be necessary to invest in real agricultural land, in collective fields. “For the same amount of money invested, a field has much higher yields in terms of quantity and nutritional quality, because the plants are in symbiosis with the land and their entire ecosystem,” he explains. “Not to mention that they are collective, not just for one family.”
For Abu Seifan, the individualistic and apolitical approach of NGO projects is to blame. “Instead of providing societal and collective solutions, they fund an entrepreneurial model that puts the burden on individuals,” like these isolated gardens. “But this suits everyone: Lebanese and Palestinian politicians do not have to make any effort, and donors have a clear conscience,” he criticizes. In the meantime, the Palestinian cause is treading water.
His organization has waged a small war against its donors by refusing to build exclusively rooftop gardens. Instead, it has taken over a 10,000 m2 field close to Beddawi, the Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli, the country’s second largest city. There, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese from different enemy neighborhoods work the land together. “We are all equal when it comes to the land,” says Nidal Hassan, one of the supervisors. “We overcome political divisions and discrimination, and the whole community benefits. The field covers the entire food needs of all the workers who work there.” But the project is now awaiting funding, and the plants are drying up under the sting of the July sun. “This dependence on NGOs and funding is really frustrating, we have lost a whole season,” he criticizes. In the absence of government and redistribution, he sees only the diaspora to help them find funds – like a small band-aid on a huge wound.
Palestinian identity is deeply rooted in agriculture
This is the experience of Zahiah Merhi. The nonagenarian with a lively smile lives in the Bourj es-Shemali camp in the south of the country and cultivates the garden of her in-laws, who are exiled abroad. “This land does not belong to me, but it is my home,” she says. And for good reason, Palestinians have no property rights in Lebanon, since their settlement is supposed to be temporary. Zahiah is part of the first generation of exiles who fled the nakba: she was six years old when she and her parents came to Lebanon in search of a safe place.
She herself worked all her life in the fields of Lebanese landlords, before her children encouraged her to retire. “I didn’t want to stay idle, so I cultivate this garden with the techniques I learned from my parents and passed on to my children,” she says. Palestinian identity is deeply rooted in agriculture, through the mythical image of the fellahin, the peasants praised in poetry, music and art.
Attachment to their ancestral land is important to many Palestinians, and although life in the camps in Beirut is largely urban, most Palestinians in southern Lebanon still work in agriculture.
After preparing a meal of mansaf, a traditional dish of rice with meat and cashews, she sits in the garden with other women in her family to smoke shisha. “I spend long hours here at sunset with my family and neighbors. It reminds me of Palestine and my parents’ wheat fields,” she says, gazing at the greenery surrounded by concrete, electric cables and Palestinian flags.
With additional reporting of Sarah Kabout, Jihad Moussa and Rabih Hajjo.
 The Amal movement is a political party and former Shiite militia founded by Imam Moussa Sadr in 1974, and led since 1980 by the current head of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berry. Amal was a direct competitor of Hezbollah, which was founded in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Beirut, before the two political and armed groups joined forces. Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah and financed by Iran, now controls a large part of Lebanese territory.
 Shatila is a refugee camp located a few kilometers from Bourj el-Barajneh. It was the scene of the Sabra and Shatila massacre perpetrated by Christian militias with Israeli support against thousands of Palestinians in 1982.