Rooftop farms in Jordan help Gazans reconnect with lost land

Why We Wrote This

Farmers know. The experience of growing a crop binds you to the land. So even if rooftop hydroponics are a far cry from tilled fields, the act of farming can still speak to the soul of a displaced people.

UNICEF
Islam Abu Saud and her twin sister, Salam, display bumper crops at their rooftop hydroponic farm earlier this year at their refugee camp in Jerash, Jordan.

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In Jordan’s Jerash refugee camp, an experiment in hydroponic rooftop gardening is offering more than a badly needed source of income. It’s offering a reconnection to the land for a people uprooted for half a century.

The former residents of the Gaza Strip who arrived at the camp in 1968 and their descendants have been denied citizenship or permanent status in Jordan. Without national IDs, the vast majority of job sectors are closed to the Gazans. Unemployment in the camp stood at 40%, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But camp resident Mohammed Siyam was alerted that hydroponic farming offered a solution. Space on rooftops, he says, “was an untapped resource we could maximize.” Under a pilot project backed by UNICEF, 24 families are harvesting crops of lettuce, basil, cucumber, and zucchini. The average harvest of a 40-day cycle yields some $340 in profit.

For some, descendants of small-farm owners or sharecroppers, the gardens are also fulfilling something unquantifiable: a longing for land.

“Perhaps the more important impact is psychological,” says Mr. Siyam. “Camp residents are going from relying on others to becoming self-reliant. After years of feeling helpless or depressed, this is a very empowering notion.”

Islam Abu Saud checks the series of white plastic tubes running and twisting across the expanse of green canvas in what looks like a life-sized school science project.

She scans digital pH readers and engine pumps. Finally, the 22-year-old university graduate gazes with satisfaction at the end result of the past four weeks of labor: bright green heads of lettuce.

Even better? This is not a farm or research center – this is her rooftop.

“After waiting for opportunities to arrive,” Ms. Abu Saud says, “I am making opportunities grow at home.”

In Jordan’s Jerash refugee camp, an experiment in hydroponic rooftop gardening is offering more than a badly needed source of income. It’s offering a reconnection to the land for a people who have been uprooted for half a century.

In Jordan, a country whose population has one of the highest percentages of refugees in the world, residents in the “Gaza Camp” – Gazans who arrived here at the Jerash camp in 1968 and their descendants – have it perhaps the hardest.

As the Gaza Strip was not under Jordanian administration at the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan did not grant citizenship to Gaza refugees like it did for Palestinians arriving from the West Bank.

This has left few options for the 31,000 residents in Jerash camp, a hill of cinder block houses and narrow broken roads 30 miles northwest of Amman.

Without national IDs, the vast majority of job sectors are closed to Gazans. Unemployment in the camp stood at 40%, and 52% of residents were below the poverty line before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many secured income as day laborers on farms and construction sites or as street vendors, all sectors that have been decimated by the pandemic and government lockdowns.

Rooftops as “untapped resource”

But Mohammed Siyam, a camp resident and community organizer, was determined to break the cycle.

He was alerted by another camp resident, an agricultural engineer, that hydroponic farming – growing crops in water containers without the need for land, large amounts of soil, or constant irrigation – could offer a solution.

“The only breathing space people have here is their rooftops,” Mr. Siyam says, gesturing to a seemingly endless wave of concrete rooftops behind him. “It was an untapped resource we could maximize.”

The average home in the “Gaza Camp” has some 535 to 800 square feet of rooftop area to use as garden space, enough room for a hydroponic system that can raise from 800 to 1,200 shoots of crops.

Alerted to the idea, UNICEF supported Mr. Siyam by launching a pilot project this past February.

Taylor Luck
Agricultural engineer Ahmed Abu Elewah takes a PH reading at his specially-designed hydroponic garden in Jerash camp, northern Jordan, Oct. 21, 2020.

Mr. Siyam and his team planned gardens that would impose the lowest possible costs on residents.

The farms are built to grow multiple cycles of crops with the same water, which is cycled through a closed system of pipes. A timed system pumps water at intervals, keeping electricity bills to the bare minimum. 

Today, 24 families are harvesting crops of lettuce, basil, cucumber, and zucchini.

Families also sell to local markets, seizing on vegetable shortages caused by government-imposed COVID-19 lockdowns.

“This innovative technology provides youth and women in the camp with long-term income generation and increases the community’s food-security,” says Tanya Chapuisat, UNICEF representative in Jordan.

With the average harvest of a 40-day cycle yielding some 240 JOD ($340) in profit, slightly more than the minimum wage in Jordan, the gardens have been life-changing for many.

“With unemployment, we have poverty and negative social phenomena such as early marriage and school dropouts,” says Ms. Abu Saud, who tends her rooftop farm with her twin sister.

“With people growing produce in their own home and selling directly, they have a steady stream of income they never had before. We can stop these negative practices and improve the well-being of the entire camp.”

A history of farming

For some, the gardens are also fulfilling something unquantifiable: a longing for land.

The concrete camp is located in the heart of water-starved Jordan’s greenest area. From any rooftop, rolling hills covered with vineyards and olive, fig, and pomegranate orchards – where many camp residents work as farmhands during harvest season – can be seen in the near distance.

This sense of longing is increased by the fact that before being driven into Jordan by war, and their camp growing into an urban maze, many Gaza families were small-farm owners or sharecroppers, attached and attuned to the natural cycle of land and seasons.

“In the early years of the camp, houses were spread apart, there was room to grow small gardens of tomatoes and cucumbers, and those on the outskirts of the camp had small farms. I grew up with greenery around us,” says Khaled Abu Saud, Islam’s 48-year-old father. “The camp grew, and it was all covered by concrete.”

Abdulhakim al-Ayan, who was among the first to be born in the camp in 1968 and whose daughter and son now grow basil and lettuce from their rooftop, recounts how his parents cultivated wheat, figs, and apples on farms in the West Bank and Gaza before arriving in Jordan.

“Tending to the land is in our blood, is part of our collective culture,” Mr. Ayan says.

Taylor Luck
The Jerash refugee camp, where more than half its 31,000 residents live below the poverty line and unemployment hovers at 40%, in northern Jordan, Oct. 21, 2020.

The gardens have also added a sense of purpose, and even vindication, for young Gazans who have been turned away by employers, such as Ahmed Abu Elewah, the experimental project’s technical director, who developed the hydroponic system.

As a youth, Mr. Abu Elewah, who was born and raised in the Jerash camp, worked on farms in northern Jordan. Frustrated at being denied a fair wage and the opportunity to advance despite his growing expertise, Mr. Abu Elewah vowed to become more successful than the farm owners who overlooked him.

Creativity and self-reliance

He won a university scholarship to study as an agricultural engineer, yet like most Gazans in Jordan, and despite sterling qualifications, he was unable to land a job in his field.

“We have so much expertise and talents to give, but we are denied the opportunity to give them,” he says as he proudly demonstrates the timed water-pumping cycle. “Growing crops allows an outlet for our creativity and self-reliance.”

Mr. Siyam agrees. “Perhaps the more important impact is psychological,” he says. “Camp residents are going from relying on others to becoming self-reliant. After years of feeling helpless or depressed, this is a very empowering notion.”

With a grant from the Netherlands government, UNICEF will expand the project to 140 hydroponic farms benefitting 280 families. Future developments are planned that would allow families to grow out-of-season crops such as strawberries and tomatoes to yield larger profit margins.

Residents say they are already harvesting benefits.

“Even though we are born in Jordan, we are treated as if we are temporary, that we don’t belong to the land we grew up on,” says Mr. Abu Saud.

“When my daughters grow crops, they are putting down roots here.”

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