Yorkshire professor shows refugees how to grow fruit out of old mattresses in the desert

When Professor Anthony Ryan stood in front of a group of Syrian refugees and told them fruit and vegetables could be grown out of a pile of discarded mattresses, they were not convinced.

Professor Anthony Ryan, from the University of Sheffield, talking to people at  Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. It is currently home to around 80,000 people.
Professor Anthony Ryan, from the University of Sheffield, talking to people at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. It is currently home to around 80,000 people.

Many of them had spent years tending to fertile land in the Daraa region of their home country before the civil war forced them to flee to a desert in neighbouring Jordan, and the concept of soil-free farming was hard to grasp at first.

But after following instructions from the University of Sheffield chemistry professor and using their own knowledge to refine the process, hundreds of refugees at the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps are now running hydroponic farms, which produce fresh fruit, vegtables and an array of herbs.

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The plants are held in place using polyurethane foam mattresses and the foam absorbs a diluted liquid fertilizer to keep the roots moist.

Professor Anthony Ryan, from the University of Sheffield, has been teaching refugees in Jordan how to grow fruit and vegtables out of old mattresses

“People have become self-sufficient really quickly,” said Professor Ryan. “There are people with vertical allotments at the back of the metal huts they live in, which are called caravans because they are on wheels, and they can produce 60kg of tomatoes a year.

“We’ve learned a lot from the Syrian farmers about how to grow things.

“All we’ve really given them is showing them you can grow things in this polyurethane foam, but they’ve shown us how to grow all these different plants in really, really harsh environments.”

“Our research has really benefited from working with them.”

Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Jordan are now running hydroponic farms

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Professor Ryan had orignially visited the country to see plastic recycling facilities in the Zaatari refugee in 2016, but came up with the idea of starting hydroponic farms when he found a warehouse full of old mattresses.

The skilled Syrians were struggling to grow anything at all before they were introduced to hydroponics, because the camps are located in the desert, where the soil quality is very poor, and Jordanian law imposes strict restrictions on using land for farming.

They are also each given just 35 litres of water a day – which is around a quarter of that used by the average Briton – which means there is rarely enough for thirsty soil-based crops.

The refugees are now able to grow food for their families and extra produce to sell, but Professor Ryan said the hydroponic farms bring other benefits.

He said: “They all miss the colour green. In the Daraa region everyone grows their own fruit and veg because that part of Syria is in the Fertile Crescent, where civilization and farming first developed.

“They all still really want to be able to grow things and to hand that knowledge on to their children.

“It’s worked on all sorts of levels and it’s been as much about improving mental health and wellbeing as it is about producing food.”

The Desert Garden Project is now funded by donations and people are being urged to make donations which can then be used to provide training and buy seeds, fertiliser and other materials.

The University of Sheffield aims to raise £250,000 so it can train and equip more than 3,000 refugees to establish self-sustaining hydroponic farms in at camps in Jordan.

You can find out more and make a donation here.