With No Land to Farm, Palestinian Refugees Are Looking Up for Answers

Like most Palestinian refugee camps, Aida is cramped and overpopulated, with open land nearly nonexistent. The solution: Growing crops on the roof.

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Azrak, a resident of the Aida camp, with his roof garden. "The trees need to be planted in the ground now; they won’t last in these pots like this," he says.
Azrak, a resident of the Aida camp, with his roof garden. "The trees need to be planted in the ground now; they won’t last in these pots like this," he says.Credit: Abed al Qaisi

BETHLEHEM – Narrow, uneven alleyways weave between mismatched, poorly planned housing blocks in the Aida refugee camp on the edge of this West Bank city. Aida, like most Palestinian refugee camps, is cramped and overpopulated. With open land nearly nonexistent, traditional farming for camp residents is impossible. Thus, to preserve their heritage and to combat the high cost of living in the West Bank, the refugees have begun looking to their roofs for answers.

Aida resident Khalid Azrak, 50, has not had to buy vegetables all summer. He’s thankful for the money he’s saved and proud of the food he’s grown. Like a handful of his neighbors, he spends a good part of his day up on the roof of his modest home, tending his crops.

“I actually grew too much,” says Azrak, a wide smile on his face. “So I’ve been giving some of the vegetables away.”

Azrak has been growing his own food for a year now, he adds proudly. The handmade greenhouse takes up about a third of his roof space. Inside the plastic tarp and netting of the arched structure Azrak grows tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and more. The rest of roof is lined with small trees in round pots made from old oil barrels, and a collection of herbs and small leafy plants.

“The trees are a year old – they did well,” Azrak says, rubbing a smooth lemon leaf between his fingers. “But they need to be planted in the ground now; they won’t last in these pots like this. I’ll give them away to someone who has land for them.”

Azrak started his garden after he was approached by the Lajee Center (lajee means "refugee" in Arabic), a community center established in the Aida camp in 2000, which launched the program to encourage roof gardening.

Rooftop greenhouses in Aida refugee camp are homemade from wood, plastic tarps and netting. Credit: Abed al Qaisi

The project was started thanks to funds from external sources that were raised by the center about two years ago. The first roof garden was planted at the center itself, where children cultivated the plants as an experiment to see if the project could be sustainable.

To date the center has helped about a dozen families by offering instruction in gardening and greenhouses. Every few months or so a workshop is held, allowing even those who haven’t yet been provided with a greenhouse and supplies to learn the skills and techniques to start their own gardens independently.

Salah Ajarma, director of the Lajee Center, told Haaretz that the project was launched not just as a way of helping the refugees save money, but also as a means of preserving a piece of Palestinian culture that has nearly been lost.

“The idea started after the wall was built, when life in the refugees camps started to become more difficult. A lot of camps are cut off from any land they could have hoped to farm on,” explains Ajarma, sitting inside the center’s small library. “So we started to think about how we could give the people some kind of green space without land in order to make sure the new generation keeps the tradition of agriculture – because most of the Palestinian people before 1948 used to be farmers so it’s important to keep those cultures and traditions.”

'We want to see green'

A few blocks down from the center, roof gardener Ibrahim Karkur, 62, is trying to do just that.

Ibrahim Karkur, 62, has been gardening on his roof for about a year and hopes soon it will be enough to feed his family. Credit: Abed al Qaisi

“It’s a problem, seeing only walls,” Karkur tells Haaretz, referring to the concrete separation barrier erected between the West Bank and Israel proper.

“Walls, walls, walls, walls – we want to see green things," he continues. "Our children need to know the land, to see the land. Today all they know is computers and Internet, they don’t know about land, because we can’t teach them, because we don’t have access to land. But with my garden I am teaching my children that part of our culture.”

Karkur himself was born in Aida, and says that back then things weren’t so crowded. While his family never had enough land to farm properly, he remembers when the camp had olive, fig and lemon trees between houses instead of narrow expanses of cracked concrete.

Karkur learned the basics of maintaining a roof garden from the Lajee Center, and is excited by the hobby; he has been watching videos online on how to improve his garden all summer. After he learns a new technique, he brings his sons up to the roof and teaches them what he’s learned.

While Karkur’s garden wasn’t as bountiful as Azrak’s this year – he wasn’t able to supply all of his family's produce needs – Karkur is hopeful that the yield of his garden will continue to improve.

“I will figure out what works and what doesn’t and keep going,” Karkur says. “That’s how we learn.”

One of the biggest challenges Karkur faced, he adds, involved irrigation. Without proper soil surrounding the roots, water just seeped out from the bottom of his gardening beds and evaporated. At one point, about halfway through the harvest, he figured out that the problem could be remedied by placing plastic tarps under the beds.

For Azrak, however, the biggest problem is less easily solved. The left side of his house is situated on a main road near the separation barrier, where clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces are quite frequent.

Indeed, Aida is a politically charged locale, with nearly every wall brightly painted with messages alluding to the right of return, and to famous Palestinian politicians, writers, artists and martyrs.

“My house is on the main road of the camp, and when the [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers come inside the clashes start,” Azrak says somberly. “They always shoot tear gas, we get a lot of tear gas in Aida, but when they shoot the stuff on my roof and it gets on my herbs and leafy vegetables outside the greenhouse – we can’t eat them. It’s poison, and every time I have to dig up the whole bed and start over.”

In a corner of his roof, Azrak has collected a pile of 30 or so tear-gas canisters, remnants from this summer’s clashes.

“I can’t complain. There are much worse things than tear gas poisoning your herbs, but it’s an unfortunate reminder – kind of like gardening on your roof for food – that we are under occupation,” Azrak says. “Our lives are different.”

With additional reporting by Abed al Qaisi.

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