“It’s not exactly an English garden of course, but it’s what we can do.”
We picked loquats from the big tree, heavy with fruits in this season. In a few minutes we had a large basket full. We’re surrounded by mint, parsley, rosemary, celery, beets, rainbow chard, lettuce, green onions, leeks, hot peppers, nettles, cucumbers, tomatoes, grape vine and different kinds of flowers scattered in between. Dragica Alafandi pours hot tea into small glasses, made with mint she picked just a few seconds earlier. We sit on a small wooden bench to drink and I can see the top leaves of the fig tree and the olive trees in front of her house.
This lovely sounding garden, full of edible plants, is in reality a small rooftop in a crowded refugee camp, in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem. More than 700,000 Palestinians were made refugees during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias in 1948. 70 years later, Palestinians are still waiting for a political solution that will guarantee their right of return. Built in 1949 to serve 3,000 refugees fleeing from 45 villages, Dheisheh camp is now home to 15,000 people. It sits on 0.33 sq km, with an estimated population density of 45,454 per sq km and is the second biggest refugee camp in the West Bank.
Most Palestinian refugees were farmers, but with no access to land other than their houses, they were disconnected from the earth that was such a big part of their identity. However, they try and plant in any bit of soil their hands can grasp, and we can see here and there fruit trees filling the narrow gaps between the buildings. Pots full of flowers and herbs cover doorsteps. Grape vines climb the walls and reach the roofs. And on some rooftops, the grape vines join micro-farms.
Karama, which means “dignity” in Arabic, is a community-based organisation established in 2002 in the Dheisheh camp. In 2012 they started the rooftop micro-farm initiative, helping women from the refugee camp to create vegetable gardens. In the camps the rooftops are always flat, to store water containers. Karama saw this architectural trait as an opportunity to create urban farms. The organisation provides women with a greenhouse, seeds and farming training, as well as an extra water tank, since having enough water is a challenge in Palestine, especially in the camps.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territories 31.5% of households were food insecure in 2017, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The rooftop micro-farms are an attempt to reduce families’ need for aid by increasing their food autonomy.
“Land is almost impossible to buy now,” says Dragica. She started planting flowers and succulents on her rooftop a few years ago. Then one day Mustafa, her husband, got hot pepper seeds from a friend. “I thought ‘why not plant vegetables?’ We got quite a big crop that year and it was quite nice! Then we started planting tomatoes, green onions, whatever seeds we had.”
Dragica heard about the micro-farm project from a neighbour, who works at Karama. “We were already trying to plant on our rooftop, but the place is very open and the greenhouse would offer a bit of protection for the vegetables.” She got a greenhouse in the middle of 2017, but also still plants in pots, bags, and whatever container she can recycle.
Dragica was born and raised in Bosnia, and she moved to Palestine to live with Mustafa, her Palestinian husband, in 1994. That year Bosnia was being torn apart by war, but it was a time of hope in Palestine. The Oslo Agreements had just been signed and people truly believed they were on the path to self-determination. So for the young couple, who met in Yugoslavia and got married the previous year, moving to Palestine looked like the best option. Mustafa’s family lives in Deheisheh, so they moved there, with their baby son and dreams of a better future.
The promise of self-determination made to Palestinians was never fulfilled and Dragica, Mustafa and their four children are still living under a military occupation that gets more violent every year. Her father-in-law, her brothers-in-law and even her husband were imprisoned by the Israeli army and living conditions in the OTP has worsened considerably since 1994, while people’s liberty and the Palestinian territory itself are constantly shrinking.
The immense pride that Dragica Alafandi feels about her garden is abundantly clear from the moment she starts talking. She refers to her garden as “a little treasure”.
“In Dheisheh I feel cut from everything. But having some plants to take care of, it’s really nice. And having something to put on the table is a big bonus. It’s very therapeutic just to look at them and see how they are growing. It’s beautiful to have something that you grew yourself. Nowadays, the produce you buy is so full of chemicals, it’s more poison than it is nourishment.”
Mustafa joins us for tea and talks about their land. In 2002 his family and neighbours got together and bought a piece of land on the hills of a nearby village called Artas. The Israeli army prohibits them from using tractors or any machine to work their land. As no Palestinian vehicle can access the land, they started walking up the hill every week carrying heavy tools. They built a stone wall and planted fruit and trees. But the Israeli settlers destroyed everything. So they planted it all again. And then the army came and uprooted everything once more. But they didn’t give up and kept planting, even though the army keeps uprooting every single plant they put in the earth. Once Mustafa planted around 40 trees on his plot of land. He tended and cared for them for a couple of years, and for the first time had hopes that his trees would be left alone. “It was hard”, he says, “because I had to pay a taxi once or twice a week to drop me near the land, then I would walk up the hill carrying tools and would do everything by hand. It took a lot of time, energy and money.” Three years ago the army came and bulldozed everything once again. Mustafa, his family and neighbours never got the chance to eat the fruits of their labour.