Lebanon: green fingers and a little magic

Posted by Amy Christian Stories, Film and Photography Project Manager

3rd Oct 2013

Lebanon: Syrian refugee Mohammed tends his small garden.

Oxfam is helping Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon looking for safe shelter. Amy Christian meets one family among thousands, trying to prepare as best they can for the approaching winter.

An hour and a half's drive north of Beirut, along a main road lined on one side by the ocean and the other by hills, you reach the town of Qalamoun. This is one of the areas where Oxfam has been working to help Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon looking for safe shelter.

Today our team travelled there to visit a small informal tented settlement where 27 families have built homes from pieces of wood and plastic sheeting. With no formal refugee camps in Lebanon and well over a million people now arrived from Syria looking for refuge there aren't many options available. Families are forced to find shelter on empty bits of land, making homes in weary looking tents that aren't able to withstand even a rain shower, let alone the impending Lebanese winter.

Not what I was expecting

We left the local office in Qalamoun and drove for a few minutes through quiet lazy streets, the hills around us full of lush green olive trees. After a while we turned a corner up onto a dirt track and as the dust settled behind us just ahead we could see the cluster of informal tents and self-made shelters. A piece of plastic flapped in the wind and caught the sun, marking them out between the trees.

Most striking were the little gardens outside each shelter, each full to the brim with roses, basil and other plants. It wasn't what I'd expected. As we parked the car and climbed out the first thing I noticed was how neat the shelters all looked, and how well they were being taken care of. An old wooden seat had been carefully positioned outside one; a glass window framed the front of another and washing lines full of children's clothes swung in the breeze. The most striking thing though were the rows of little gardens outside each shelter, each one full to the brim with roses, basil and other plants I don't know the names of. It wasn't what I'd expected.

Immediately the community came over to say hello and within minutes were insisting we join them for Turkish coffee. When you visit with Syrians drinking Turkish coffee is a must. It's served in tiny glasses, almost syrupy in substance and black as black can be. I don't take sugar in coffee usually but I have to with this one.

We drink the coffee in the shade of Auod's house. Surrounded by relatives she starts to tell us her story and about the family's life now that they are in Lebanon. She points to the far side of the house, to a patch of concrete where a hundred red peppers lay drying in the sun, their edges turning up and crisping in the afternoon heat.

Mohammed in his garden

Preparing for winter

"We are preparing for winter by pickling vegetables like eggplant with peppers and olive oil. We are trying to preserve food now whilst it's cheaper as we won't be able to afford things like fruit and vegetables in the winter." Auod gets up and takes us to the small patch of garden where she is growing cabbage, tomatoes and corn. It is truly impressive to see what can be grown in a small patch of earth no bigger than a meter square. "Well Mohammed is the gardener here in the community though. He has grown all of the plants you can see here, all of the roses. He has 'green hands' as we say in Arabic." 

Mohammed turns out to be an eleven-year-old boy who has a passion for gardening which has unwittingly transformed the settlement where his family is living. It is hard to explain how a rose garden could make any difference to the horror of living in a shelter made of plastic, cardboard and chip board when you have been used to so much more, but after meeting Mohammed and his family I can assure you that it does.

"It makes me happy to watch my garden grow"

"I love the colour green, it's my favourite. Even when I play a game and have to pick a colour I always pick green. People say that I have magic because I can make things grow. I plant a seed, any seed, and it grows into a beautiful plant. Other girls and boys here try to grow plants like mine but they can't. If they cut a rose bud they get just one flower but if I cut it, it will grow three. They beg me to tell them my secrets but I won't," Mohammed says with a grin. "It makes me happy to watch my garden grow. I worry all the time that the plants have enough vitamins and water, that the rain won't damage the leaves. I know that when the winter comes my plants will probably die but I will plant more in the spring."

Mohammed tells us how he misses his garden in Syria, how he wishes he could go back to play games with his friends in the park. "If I could write to my friend I would remind him about the things we used to do, the games we played and the fun we had so that he doesn't forget. We used to throw water balloons at each other and play on the swings. I miss him a lot, he was my best friend and I haven't seen him for a really long time."

Mohammed in his garden.Mohammed came here nine months ago with his mother, they now live in a one room shelter made almost entirely of chip board, sleeping on thin mattresses with just one blanket each. When it rains water pours in through the gaping holes in the ceiling.  Mohammed hasn't been able to go to school in months, and so gardening has filled his time and helped him heal. His mother tells us how he had taken months to adjust to the move to Lebanon, that he kept asking about the things they'd left behind.

Back in Syria they had had a decent apartment with two bedrooms and a bathroom, a dry happy place that was above all 'home'. Now Mohammed's mother tells us that nothing can make this shelter feel like home."I don't dream of the future anymore, we have lost everything and I don't know what will happen to us. We can't go back and living here is very difficult. We lack basic things that we need and when winter comes things will be even harder."

How Oxfam is helping

Oxfam has been working with the families here for several months now. Toilets, showers and a water tank have been installed and each family has received cash to help them pay the rent for the land they have built their homes on. These small things have made a big difference to the lives of Mohammed and his family but with winter coming they will need a lot more help to survive the harsh conditions it will bring.

"Mohammed's gardens have helped to bring me some happiness. He has always liked to garden, even when he was small I would have to drag him from the garden to take him to school. Mohammed is the only thing that can make me smile now."

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Blog post written by Amy Christian

Stories, Film and Photography Project Manager

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