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Rooftop farms provide rich pickings in refugee camp

By Catriona Davies, CNN
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Tue October 16, 2012
A woman in Deheishe refugee camp tending her plants in her greenhouse. Women are mostly taking the lead in the greenhouse project.
A woman in Deheishe refugee camp tending her plants in her greenhouse. Women are mostly taking the lead in the greenhouse project.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Palestinians have farming history but no land to grow produce, says NGO
  • Rooftop greenhouses save families money on fruit and vegetables
  • Scheme is being expanded to more refugee camps

(CNN) -- Hajar Hamdan lives with her mother, sister and her sister's two children in the concrete jungle of Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Yet Hamdan is growing enough vegetables on her roof to feed her family and pass the surplus on to her neighbors.

Hamdan's family is one of 15 in Deheishe to have a greenhouse on their roof as part of a project which is now being extended to other Palestinian refugee camps.

Money is tight with no wage-earners in the household, so Hamdan is grateful for the money she saves on vegetables.

"It saves a lot of money and it's great to practice being a farmer," said Hamdan. "It makes me happy working inside our greenhouse.

My neighbors often come round asking if we have any (vegetables) to spare, which makes me very popular
Hajar Hamdan

"We grow tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, aubergines and zucchini. My neighbors often come round asking if we have any to spare, which makes me very popular.

"And it tastes so much better because there are no chemicals."

The rooftop greenhouse project was launched in April by Karama, an NGO based in Deheishe that works with women and children.

Deheishe, established in 1949 on 0.3 square kilometers, is home to 13,000 people, a third of whom are unemployed, according to the United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

Luay Abdul Ghafar, the greenhouse project manager, said: "We have no green spaces and a bad economic situation. Most people are from families with a farming background who no longer have contact with the land.

"The idea of the project is to help people in their economic life and at the same time renew their contact with the land."

He said the first season had been a success, with most families growing enough vegetables to feed themselves with some leftover for neighbors.

Ghafar said goods imported to the West Bank go through Israel and are sold at Israeli prices, which means fruit and vegetables are expensive for most Palestinians, who have much lower incomes.

He estimated that many save a quarter of their overall monthly budget by growing their own fruit and vegetables.

The first greenhouses were paid for through a donation made by a Palestinian American woman. A further set paid for by the United Nations have been erected in nearby Aida refugee camp.

Now Karama is talking to larger NGOs about expanding the project further afield.

"We are going to have 65 greenhouses soon ... we would like to keep giving them to as many families as we can," said Ghafar.

At least 18% of West Bank residents live below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook.

He said the scheme was administered by women, to help them achieve a better status in their families and communities.

Families were chosen to take part according to their need, having enough sun on their roofs and being willing and keen on agriculture, said Ghafar.

Most people are from families with a farming background who no longer have contact with the land
Luay Abdul Ghafar, project manager, Karama

"We are thinking about making a collective association so people can sell the vegetables they have leftover at a cheap price to benefit other people as well," he added.

Ghafar said some people were initially skeptical about the greenhouses because some had previously tried to grow vegetables directly on their roofs, but the soil had destroyed their homes.

"Our challenge was to convince people to understand the greenhouses and that the soil wouldn't be directly on their roofs," he said.

Hamdan said she was one of those initially skeptical, but had no doubts once she saw the difference it made to her life.

"In the beginning I didn't think it would work," she said. "But once I tried it I saw it was a good idea and would encourage anyone to have a greenhouse."

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