University project to create ‘desert gardens’ in refugee camps

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The University of Sheffield is working with Syrian refugees to grow food in the desert using discarded mattresses in a project that could be rolled out to every refugee camp in the world, helping millions to thrive in barren landscapes.

Discarded mattress foam, which currently ends up in landfill, is being used to grow food for refugees in desert environments.

A young girl successfully grows basil at the refugee camp

A young girl successfully grows basil at the refugee camp

The University of Sheffield’s team of experts in hydroponics (growing plants without soil) have collaborated with a group of Syrian refugees – many of whom are experienced farmers – to grow tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and herbs using waste materials in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Aid workers currently discard thousands of used foam mattresses in camps around the world, but the scientists, who have been developing foam “soils” in their labs in Sheffield, believe they could be used as a growing medium for crops.

The Yorkshire scientists have shown refugees how to fill waste containers around the camp with mattress foam. A carefully balanced nutrient solution is then added and seedlings are planted straight into the foam, which supports the plant’s roots as it grows.

Working closely with the refugees, the team has created “desert gardens” that provide people in the camp with fresh herbs and vegetables, training opportunities and some much needed greenery in a harsh desert landscape.

Prof Duncan Cameron and Prof Tony Ryan with a waste mattress

Prof Duncan Cameron and Prof Tony Ryan with a waste mattress

The University of Sheffield said its scientists have also learned from the refugees, whose use of the foam in real-life conditions has shown the potential to grow crops more sustainably and in places with degraded soils. This growing method uses 70 to 80 per cent less water than planting straight into the soil and eliminates the need for pesticides.

The project is a collaboration between the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures and the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield.

The project has trained nearly 1,000 refugees to grow food with foam, but now funding is running out so the university has launched a public appeal to make the initiative sustainable and roll it out to other camps.

They hope to raise £250,000 to supply seeds, nutrient solution and training for 3,000 refugees.

Rehab Osman Khalifa, community services officer at the Zaatari camp

Rehab Osman Khalifa, community services officer at the Zaatari camp

Using a “train the trainers” model, this will enable the project to become self-sustaining – with refugees sharing knowledge and skills with each other and using the money from selling produce to buy more supplies.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which runs Zaatari camp, provides Syrian refugees with enough money to buy staples like bread and chickpeas, but life-enriching fruit and vegetables are often out of reach and traditional goods like fresh mint tea are considered a luxury.

The University of Sheffield said its Desert Garden project gives people the tools and skills they need to grow their own fresh produce and gain future employment, as well as boosting mental health.

Professor Tony Ryan, director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, said: “The refugees we have worked with have taken our training and made the project their own, growing things we never thought would be possible in the desert environment using recycled materials.

“We are only at the start of what might be possible, in terms of what refugees and their situation has to teach us about all of our potential futures.

“UNHCR see this as something that can work in nearly every refugee camp to improve mental health and wellbeing. If we can make desert gardens economically and culturally sustainable in Jordan, we can ultimately roll this out around the world and help millions of refugees to thrive.”

Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, Desert Garden project manager at the University of Sheffield, said: “I’m a researcher and a Syrian refugee myself – and now I’m helping others like me to learn new skills and feed their families with fresh herbs and vegetables in the desert.

“When you’re forced to flee your home, it’s the simple things you miss – like a cup of fresh mint tea or showing your children how to plant a seed. This project connects people with home and gives them hope for the future.”

Professor Duncan Cameron, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, added: “It’s astonishing what happens to the collective human imagination when it meets and is ignited by urgent reality. Our research on synthetic soils meant we could re-imagine the UNHCR’s waste disposal problem – where aid workers saw used mattresses, we saw an alternative growth substrate.

“This project is about co-creation, not ‘smart ideas’ parachuted in. As scientists, we’ve learned an enormous amount from the refugees about how our research can be applied in the real world, and they’ve gained valuable skills for the future.”

Abu Wessam, a Syrian refugee living in Zaatari camp, said: “We came here as refugees because of the destruction and killing in Syria. We came to Zaatari camp and the conditions were very bad when we arrived. The situation was miserable. We used to live in houses, now we live here in tents – six or seven people in one tent.

“This type of agriculture taught us a lot. It would be good if all people in the camp learned this, because the soil isn’t suitable for growing.”