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Planting Hope – urban gardening in climate-vulnerable Palestinian refugee camps

The Al-Am’ari Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Ramallah, Palestine, has one of the highest population densities in the world. For its inhabitants, the restricted physical space is mirrored and compounded by a lack of economic opportunities, especially for women. Meanwhile, increasing temperatures threaten food security and make daily life intolerable. The Planting Hope initiative aims to tackle these issues together.

Blog Post

Published on 10 November 2022

Author(s): Hamdi Hato, Brian Crann

Hamdi Hato is an environmental engineer and social entrepreneur from Ramallah. Brian Crann is an environmental engineer from the United States, working in Jerusalem. Contact Hamdi and Brian

This piece is one of the three winning entries in our Youth Ideas for Europe-MENA Cooperation on Climate Resilience competition

Hamdi grew up in Al-Am’ari Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Ramallah, Palestine. If you look at the camp from above, it will appear as if you are looking at one large concrete roof. There is not even a place for the doves to find a home. Al Am’ari has an estimated population density of nearly 73,000 people per square km – higher than that of Mumbai. Despite a doubling of the population since 1949 (from 3,000 in 1949 to 6,100 in 2021), there has been no expansion of the camp’s boundaries since its establishment. There are no open spaces, let alone green spaces for public enjoyment. Urban planning is lacking, and infrastructure, like stormwater management systems or water distribution networks, is insufficient for a changing climate.

Urban density, in this case, will further endanger physical and mental health in this community as the climate continues to warm. Israel’s military occupation of Palestine and the policy established by the Oslo Accords means that Palestinians are unable to expand horizontally and must instead develop vertically as the population grows. As temperatures increase, heat is unable to escape, and there are next to no green spaces to help absorb it and provide shade. Groundwater recharge is also inhibited by a lack of rainwater collection infrastructure and the presence of impermeable surfaces, leaving residents vulnerable to flooding in the event of downpours.

Satellite photo of Al-Am’ari Refugee Camp

At the same time, food security is an issue of concern in Palestine for a host of reasons. In over 60% of the West Bank, Palestinians require a permit issued by the Israeli Civil Administration in order to access groundwater, posing a major challenge to agricultural operations. In the camps, fresh and nutritious food is often unavailable to families due to economic constraints. A reduction in Israeli work permits and low levels of education and training leave many women in the camp with a lack of opportunities for economic engagement.

Despite these conditions, many residents opt to remain in the camp rather than move to surrounding areas. For thousands, Al-Am’ari represents the essence of a story of intergenerational resilience, hope, and identity. If they leave the camp, it will be to return to their homeland and nowhere else. Without action to enhance climate resilience, it is plausible that camp residents may duplicate their experience and becomes refugees twice over, this time due to climate change.

We established Planting Hope in Palestine in 2017, with the aims of addressing lack of green space, biodiversity, and women’s employment. After a successful pilot garden was implemented, we moved into the capacity building phase which, in partnership with the Al Am’ari Women’s Center, extended the project to the women of the camp. Engagement with 67 young women in Al Am’ari resulted in the creation of 50 green rooftop units in the camp, thus creating 50 self-employment opportunities and 50 homes for birds, insects, and dreamers. Establishing these gardens provided an opportunity for women of the community to practice management skills and to turn an unused space into a place that showcases their abilities and aspirations. In addition, the gardens can provide locally grown food and nutrition for the community. With further development, this could provide economic opportunities for the residents of the camp as well. We are now in the stage of providing development services and ongoing training for the women involved as well as attempting to increase biodiversity in the area through these green rooftop units.

Rooftop Garden in Al Am’ari Camp. Photo: Hamdi Hato

The programme faced several challenges including low initial interest. Residents were hesitant to put rooftop gardens on their homes because the space was usually reserved to build additional rooms for growing families. Additionally, instability regarding the security situation has typically discouraged residents from implementing outside-of-the-box ideas. The environment of the camp is not one that fosters a mind or soul that is truly at peace or is compelled to dream big and turn the dream into reality. The inspiring women of al-Am’ari, however, dared to challenge these conditions and eventually adopted this initiative with great enthusiasm and pride.

Illiteracy is common in the camps among the target demographic, and because intensive communication is essential during the early period of training, this was a major obstacle in making the project possible. In order to overcome this, we made it the custom to contact our participants with voice messages, eliminating illiteracy as a barrier to meaningful involvement in the project. One participant’s testimony comes from Sara, a 35-year-old mother who had not been receiving adequate vitamins and iron through her diet because she could not afford sufficiently nutritious food from the local market. This had visible impacts on her health and that of her child. After she turned her rooftop into a productive garden, she was able to subsist partially on her own produce, like spinach and cucumber, and her health improved. Other women bring the produce to market fresh or in the form of medicinal and aromatic products which in turn provides income for the household.

Capacity building seminar at Al Am’ari Women’s Center. Photo: Hamdi Hato

There is tremendous potential to scale this project both within and beyond al-Am’ari camp. It is estimated that there are about 5 million Palestinian refugees worldwide in 2022, and about 1.5 million individuals living in recognized refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Jerusalem (UNRWA). People living in these environments do not enjoy the privilege of having green spaces nearby, which negatively affects mental health and wellbeing. Palestinian refugees, now in their fourth generation, will not adapt their character or abilities to the tent or the camp, rather they will adapt their environments to suit their humanity and aspirations.

The Planting Hope in Palestine initiative may serve as a platform for connection between urban farmers across borders. For example, there is a similar community project that is centered in Jerusalem, which is typically inaccessible to the women of Al-Amari. Additionally, gardeners are assisted by, a device designed to increase efficient use of water use while still maximizing plant production. After receiving training on how to program, women can specify plant life cycle and water requirements, and the machine handles the execution. Additionally, this app offers connectivity to its users. It serves as a platform to spur a connection with nature, connection with experienced project designers, and connection to a marketplace where urban farmers can access materials needed for growth and cultivation of products.

A project of this nature is as reliant on financial resources as it is on human energy and resources. Investment is needed to bring it to scale. Equipment, space, and training by qualified individuals will require funding and responsible resource management. The process undergone at al-Am’ari can serve as a model in other locations that face similar issues and contribute to food and climate security, employment, and a sense of community. One rooftop at a time, we can make our space greener and bring our communities together in ways we have not yet experienced.

Sustainability of the project requires investment and leadership from interested and passionate individuals from the community. Our initiative would benefit from partnerships with experienced organizations as well as from financial support. Consultations with individuals or organizations who have worked on projects of a similar nature may aid us in optimizing our own project or inspire us to pursue new initiatives relevant to the project goals.

Critically, our project, like our society, exists under the pressure of a violent military occupation. The women leading this initiative can never assume that their children will return home after school or work. They can never assume that their home and privacy will not be invaded in the middle of the night. The most powerful thing the EU and its member nations can do to provide safer space for this and other initiatives like it, is to evaluate the security policies of Israel, understand how they affect the daily lives of Palestinians trying to make the best of their collective situation, and to take a stand in diplomatic arenas to try to bring change in those policies, and on the ground.