Dragica Alafandi and her family live in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem. Her small rooftop garden, where she grows fruits and vegetables to feed her family, featured in our film ‘A Little Treasure’ and in ‘Sowing Seeds of Resistance’, a film we made for Equal Times.
In this interview, Dragica talks more about the impact this small oasis has on her family’s life.
What are the biggest challenges of having a rooftop garden in a refugee camp?
Dragica: Having enough water. I’m constantly worried about it. Water shortages are quite hard to manage. That’s why we have reservoirs [water containers]. The water comes more or less every ten days, for 24 hours. Sometimes less. Up to now we were managing the water fine, but our garden got quite sizeable so we have to be even more mindful of our water use, trying to stock even more water. We try to recycle water but it’s quite hard to get it to the rooftop. Then let’s not forget this is a refugee camp in Palestine. There are Israeli soldiers shooting almost every night here. Teargas bombs are flying everywhere. Our rooftop is quite high but I’m always afraid they would tear down the greenhouse. It would be a disaster.
How did the rooftop garden impact the life of your family?
Dragica: The way we eat changed. It became fresher. Now we have much more salads, and much more soups. My youngest son, Aissa, loves to come up here and pick whatever is there to eat. My daughter Miriam is more into salads and picks a little bit of these leaves and a little bit of that flower and she makes salads with that. My family loves having lots of fresh mint in their tea. And everyone loves hot peppers. It was the first vegetable that we grew here. Then we made shatta, the Palestinian hot sauce, and it was wonderful to have organic shatta. It’s just a condiment, but it’s very nice to have this little thing to lift your spirit. We cannot grow everything we need, it’s a rooftop after all. Families are big and we have to buy produce to feed all the mouths. But the few things we can grow here, when we prepare them it’s always special.
Where do you buy the vegetables you don’t grow?
Dragica: You have the choice of buying from a commercial place, where a middleman brings in big boxes of produce grown with pesticides, or you can buy from the ‘falahin’, the peasants who grow their own vegetables and sell them at the market. These peasants always stay in the same places, and we get to know them. It’s something similar to a farmer’s market. It’s great to buy local, to buy Palestinian-grown produce.
Are you happy with your garden?
Dragica: It’s a lot of work, you need to go up everyday, but it’s good because Mustafa helps. He’s the first one to get here in the morning. Even though it was my idea and I started it, he likes it very much now.
I come from a village, and my mother always had flowerpots, on the steps, on the balcony, everywhere. I wasn’t very interested in planting back then, but it changed a lot after I had children. It’s so nice to show them the flowers blooming, how the fruit sets, have them pick what’s growing… It’s very fulfilling for both parts. My children like to come up here, just sit and enjoy being surrounded by plants. I don’t only grow plants to eat, I grow plant for their therapeutic values as well. And it’s also good for the soul. It’s not an English garden, of course, but it’s what we can do here. Dheisha is all concrete and iron, so this garden, it’s a little treasure. In the camps, rooftops are used as a little place where you can get away to, when you don’t have anywhere else to escape.
“Dheisha is all concrete and iron, so this garden, it’s a little treasure. In the camps, rooftops are used as a little place where you can get away to, when you don’t have anywhere else to escape.“