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The Gift of Gardening Young Refugee Children Grow to Learn

Text By Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Photos By Zaher Grow to Learn & Rita Chami

 

A distant prayer call wafts through the classroom. A woman in the neighboring building does laundry. Inside the classroom, 27 children, youth and some adults ponder about

Ghassan Al-Salman, the workshop trainer’s question: “Where do we get sun?”

The group gathered at the Baraem Al-Mustakbal Retention Support Center (RSC) in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa, was attending the sixth and last Zaher Grow to Learn workshop. Organized by the Danish NGO Zaher Grow to Learn, in partnership with SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon and with the support of Sawa for Development & Aid (SDAID), these workshops aim to empower Syrian refugee children with new skills, strengthening those they have already and teaching them to set up a learning garden. Zaher Grow to Learn founders Iben von Holck and Sofie Bervild Nielsen came to Lebanon in 2016 to do internships – none remotely involving gardening. Von Holck became an assistant teacher in Aley where she first spotted unused dirt patches next to piles of rubbish – and realized the need for extra curricular activities. “Sofie and I started to speak about the idea of making gardens,” von Holck recalled. “We both have a background in Anthropology and Arabic so we felt that we needed local partners to assist us.” The two women connected with SOILS who became their main collaborators and Sawa to gain access to educational facilities and children. The founders, both based in Denmark, help with communication, getting local experts, and funding. In order to prove that such a project should not depend on big funding and to allow for replication elsewhere, Zaher Grow to Learn managed to set the project up with a budget below $5000. They received about half from Action Aid and raised the rest through personal fundraising. Sawa runs the organization and also selected the participating children, youth and young adults who live in a nearby Syrian settlement. The “ambassadors” are between 15 and 25 and the participating younger kids are between six and 15. Half of the participants are female. Building on a pre-workshop held in August the subsequent six workshops focused on Agriculture, Flora, Soil and Compost, Water, the Environment and a Holistic Conclusion held late October. Permaculture, the method chosen to set up the school garden, is a design process that aims to develop agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Discussions in the classroom around what would be planted next generated as many responses as enthusiasm. Two female ambassadors listed onion, garlic and purslane. Another boy added fava beans, peppermint, tomatoes, cucumber, basil, parsley, and jasmine. Up next were three boys, around 10-12 years old, who had just started naming their greens when a young woman interjected: “fraise” (strawberries). These rhizomes were promptly added to all planting lists. A girl explained her choices based on the sun. The last group mentioned spinach, “Mulukhiyi” (Jew’s mallow), strawberries, “sambuk” (Delphinium retropilosum) and a baby bitter orange tree. The founders noted that while they initially thought mainly of vegetables – and nutrition – the group had, from the beginning expressed the desire to include flowers in the garden. Situated behind the school and the wall separating it from the neighboring buildings, the garden has the shape of an L. In the area representing the vertical part of the L, were green patches filled with 2-3 week old small seedlings of radish, onion, garlic, fava beans and spinach that the kids had learnt to recognize. According to Salman, the soil was surprisingly good: “It is silty, with not much sand, and retains a lot of water. Regarding its fertility, we see when

we grow.” Salman underlined that benefits of the project were numerous, including the acquisition of skills for

 

future jobs, halting environmental degradation, empowering those with limited resources through sustainable agriculture, and familiarizing the group with the concept of food heritage through the heirloom seeds used… When he asked the group huddled around him about a tree behind him someone immediately called out: “Walnut”! “Loquat” said a boy pointing at another small tree. There were also an apple, a willow and a fig tree. Snug in a small row next to the compost were aromatic plants including rosemary, as well as a Japanese honeysuckle and parthenocissus. A young woman pointed at a bitter orange tree and calendula, a medicinal plant, with yellow and orange flowers, which chose to grow near grey water areas. The big discussion held in the garden was about tree-planting. Salman told the group that there was too little sunshine for fruit trees. The group settled for pomegranate, walnut and mulberry, as well as a grapevine. To keep the garden running, Zaher Grow to Learn decided to appoint ambassadors: six committed individuals that will take care of the garden beyond the pilot phase. During winter, preparations for spring will be under way. “The idea really is for these children and young adults to learn new ways

of gardening that are sustainable,” von Holck underlined. “Our aim is to turn the garden into an educational space and to incorporate it into the school curriculum. It should allow the students to sit here and enjoy the space as much as it should allow for experiential learning, and teachers using it.” Nidal Al-Saadi, a school principal, and volunteer with Sawa backed the idea from inception. “Gardening is good,” he said. “The kids need to workshops focused on Agriculture, Flora, Soil and Compost, Water, the Environment and a Holistic Conclusion held late October. Permaculture, the method chosen to set up the school garden, is a design process that aims to develop agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Discussions in the classroom around what would be planted next generated as many responses as enthusiasm. Two female ambassadors listed onion, garlic and purslane. Another boy added fava beans, peppermint, tomatoes, cucumber, basil, parsley, and jasmine. Up next were three boys, around 10-12 years old, who had just started naming their greens when a young woman interjected: “fraise” (strawberries). These rhizomes were promptly added to all planting lists. A girl explained her choices based on the sun. The last group mentioned spinach, “Mulukhiyi” (Jew’s mallow), strawberries, “sambuk” (Delphinium retropilosum) and a baby bitter orange tree. The founders noted that while they initially thought mainly of vegetables – and nutrition – the group had, from the beginning expressed the desire to include flowers in the garden. Situated behind the school and the wall separating it from the neighboring buildings, the garden has the shape of an L. In the area representing the vertical part of the L, were green patches filled with 2-3 week old small seedlings of radish, onion, garlic, fava beans and spinach that the kids had learnt to recognize. According to Salman, the soil was surprisingly good: “It is silty, with not much sand, and retains a lot of water. Regarding its fertility, we see when

we grow.” Salman underlined that benefits of the project were numerous, including the acquisition of skills for interact with soil. They get stressed in the camps and they have psychological issues. Gardening helps them get rid of their nervous energy and stress. They find it joyful, they feel responsible, they enjoy it!” Standing by as the group was discussing planting plans he noted: “they plant what they want. It’s a democracy here.” With roots in the Houran, where he had 300 olive trees, Saadi added that the approach was consultative, children were discussing with adults – as equals. “This could be a model for Syria…” Amal, a 23 year-old ambassador was unequivocal about the fact that gardening should be a school subject. With an urban background she didn’t know much about gardening. She joined the project to change that. “I found all the sessions were of interest,” the young woman said. “What’s good about gardening is that once you acquire the skills, you can make your own garden. Unfortunately where I live we are not allowed to grow anything. We cleared a small space where there was wood and we wanted to use it to plant and the land owner asked for $100 if we went ahead.” “It’s a duty to look after the garden and if we succeed this will be a nice green spot! I look forward to the smell of jasmine.” For Naouaf, 16, another ambassador, taking care of and working in the garden was something he was happy to do. Having attended all workshops he was proud to have learnt how to plant, and to take care of the garden. “I used to live in Homs and had a garden there. Here, I’d like to growvegetables, fruit and flowers. My vision is for it to be all green! I’d like to keep growing gardens one day, and to sell fruit I grow professionally. The taste is different when it’s self-grown.

 

I really like apples and strawberries,” he added with a shy smile. “The project has proven to us, that you can get very far with very small means,” Zaher Grow to Learn stated at the end of the successful pilot project. “The project proves that there are alternative means of supporting Syrian refugee youth. By giving resources to the local Syrians in the learning garden they actually become the driving force for the garden’s expansion.” “In future, we hope to target public schools and to develop a method of how to create an inexpensive school garden. In schools used for by Lebanese and Syrian children, such a garden could become a neutral space.”

 

 

Read more: WE Magazine issue #15

 

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