Rowe Morrow, New South Wales Regional Meeting

 In a refugee camp in Iraq, people are preparing to return to their home city of Mosul which they fled when it was heavily bombed last year. With them, after a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) they will be taking new skills in permaculture. When they look at grey water running through streets, or need a way to protect themselves against the harsh summer sun, the permaculture lessons they have learnt will provide some answers to these problems.

Transforming a refugee camp

At the beginning of their permaculture journey, as their teacher I ask them to start by working on designs for their homes in the camp. These camps have broad, dusty bare roads along which  people live in tents or small cement buildings enclosed by  high walls. The challenge is to make their surroundings softer, greener, and cooler, and provide some fresh food to supplement the World Food Project rations.  Summer temperatures can go to 50º+C and winter,  drop to -15ºC.  Winds are savage.   The residents usually live with enforced inactivity.

Analysing the soil

Learning is a positive and critical opportunity often neglected in camps.

The refugee’s “home” is the priority for design and activity

The students are set tasks. They must think about

  • where to create shade
  • how to block the savage, dusty winds
  • how to collect water and how to reuse grey water
  • what food they can grow in small spaces

With limited and boring food rations, a path towards better nutrition is a good place to start. The students begin with simple crops like tomatoes, parsley, and beans, with a pumpkin or two to cover the roofs in summer. Soon, vegetables like aubergines and courgettes are added to the mix. These crops grow fast, produce prolifically, and assist in creating much needed shade and nutrition.  Then they add fruits such as grapes.

 Moving outwards to the street and the whole camp – with initiative

Distributing the seeds

With inspiration the learners turn towards greening the streets outside their homes.

Here, people started with technical knowledge. First they deal with the problematic greywater which runs down the gutters and treat it to water new fruit trees which also give shade in summer when the temperature rockets.

We all walk around the camp looking at the slimy, black water in which children are playing. By using nature’s techniques, this water will be cleaned. A delicate mix of plants, oxygen, and sunshine can sterilise water – a welcome skill in a place with little fresh water and stifling heat.

The students identify the wind direction, and where they need windbreaks. They learn about the types of trees, how to plant them, and what benefits they can bring, such as shade, timber, fruits, flowers, bee fodder and a multitiude of other uses.

As the course continues students develop their own initiatives. Turning to water collection, they calculate how much rainwater they can collect from the roofs of sheds, storerooms, and the mosque and identify where it can be distributed to community gardens during the dry season.  They plan community gardens and small economic land-based incomes.

These were actions taken from a theoretical class. They captured the vision to transform  camp.   The students also took the seeds we gave them, and gave them to others who hadn’t attended the class, and told them how to plant it. We didn’t ask them to do that.

Making compost

This year, some of the first new permaculturists will talk to Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from Mosul who have been in camps for months and who, before returning to Mosul, will have a permaculture course.  Before these Iraqis return home to their blitzed villages they will meet  and  talk with students about the experience of learning permaculture, and what they can expect to learn.

This is a World Vision, Kurdistan, initiative. It is the beginning of a project which is the ultimate goal of Permaculture For Refugees (P4R)  and will become refugee-to-refugee taught and refugee managed.

 Teaching permaculture

A Kurdistan refugee camp is where this work, inititated by Wolds Vision International, took Paula Paananen and me in 2017.  I made a pledge to myself early on in my career, that I would take permaculture to places that aren’t easily accessed by permaculture teachers or knowledge. As in the past, that could be anywhere from Vietnam to rural Ethiopia.

From a small base in the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute (BMPI) in Katoomba and active permaculturists from Philippines, Spain, Greece, Italy and a support group working in camps and new settlements P4R by Skype. We work with displaced people across the world, and I have strong feelings about how Australia is treating asylum seekers and describe the practice of sending people to Pacific islands instead of mainland Australia as humiliating, shameful and unconscionable.

 I’ve seen what causes mass migration of people, seen the needless suffering, and so I have a profound, deep repugnance and loathing for war and violence.  After seeing the conditions refugees often live in, and after working in Southern Europe during the economic crisis,  my thoughts crystalised: “There is a better way, and it is permaculture.”

We needed to transform refugee camps from places of profound suffering and injustice into eco-villages. And this is possible and makes perfect sense without wasting any human potential while restoring ecosystems.

The first impact of the work in refugee camps is to improve people’s immediate living conditions. Camps can be regreened, refugees skilled up, and wellbeing improved. Permaculture gives people something to think about and skills they can all do, and they feel like people again with skills, purpose, hope and a future.

. . . or more detailed

The plan . . . idealised

Challenges to assumptions

Getting to the point where the students can design the camp for themselves is challenging. Often courses must to be translated into multiple languages and there are cultural differences to overcome, and many students are confronted when offered new ways of learner-centred learning;  many of them are not used to actively participating in class. There are innumerable challenges.

When I talk about forests, perennial systems, rehydrating landscapes and sustainability, I hit another stumbling block because some students have never seen a forest.  Long wars destroy forests e.g. in Kurdistan and Afghanistan. For me, reforesting as quickly as possible is vital. Once the trees come back, so will water.

The future: ambitious goals

I want refugees to take over the teaching, and for them to go into other camps to share their knowledge. For this to happen, there needs to be more support and facilitation from NGOs and camp

The model

managers. And beyond facilitation, they need to want the refugees to succeed in permaculture and to transform the camps and settlements.

Everything happens faster when refugees teach each other. We constantly keep our focus on refugees and their abilities and potential. But we need to train more trainers.

I have recently had a breakthrough, and it came from Kabul. I was able to fund the Afghan Peace Volunteers  from small personal donations and LUSH, to translate some key texts from the permaculture design course into Dari, a language of Afghanistan. The translations that the Afghan Peace Volunteers provide will be taken into a refugee camp in Greece. I am keen for translation work to continue, and for the refugees to be the translators.

In 2018, I ran a second Permaculture Design Course in Kabul organised by the Afghan Peace Volunteers. This was against a backdrop of 40 years of war resulting in millions of internally displaced people. There were tanks in the street, terrorist bombing down the road,  and I was told by local people that in one village the bombing was so intense that the people had no land left to bury their dead.

Permaculture for the future

In the field

I am very clear about one thing – this is much more than just a gardening project, it is a holistic sustainability project. The work goes far beyond regreening refugee camps.

The nature of a refugee camp is that its inhabitants are likely to leave one day. When that happens, permaculture students will leave behind a healthy piece of land, well stocked with fruit trees, grapes, olives, and shade trees. This will be of huge benefit to the local communities which BMPI and P4R also want to integrate into the permaculture learning and applications. Once a permaculture camp has started, the gates need to open and villagers, farmers, and other locals also need to be able to learn permaculture and work with the refugees. This is a long way from becoming a reality.

The final element to our work involves the future of the IDPs, and what happens when they return home. Permaculture can provide relevant solutions;  ways to bring life back into war-torn cities, and better ways of rebuilding better than originally.

As yet, I  don’t know anyone who has gone back to their home with permaculture skills, but we are full of hope for the initiative. We may soon have answers after some of our students from a camp in Iraq return to Mosul.

What is so exciting about this work, is that it not only creates a better environment in the short term, it is also provides long term solutions. There are undoubtedly some wounds that can’t be healed. But if our vision is realised, permaculture could offer some startling opportunities for people returning to cities ravaged by war. It can give people the skills to take control of their surroundings, and show them how to harness the processes and beauty of the natural world in order to create a more sustainable future.

Based on an article supplied for LUSH journal in UK.



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