Of all the countries Palestinians have had to flee to over the last 75 years during the Israeli occupation, Jordan is number one.
While many Palestinians, who fled mostly between 1948 and 1967, were granted Jordanian citizenship and were able to settle as normal citizens with access to work opportunities, education and housing; many could not.
This was especially true for those coming from the Gaza Strip, and those who came later had to escape from war-torn Syria, have kept refugee status and been distributed between Jordan’s ten Palestinian refugee camps: around two million.
Forced to live in crowded neighbourhoods where buildings allow no space for natural and green spaces, refugees feel deprived of a very important part of their identity, as the environment is not only an integral part of their traditional lifestyles but also a symbol of their resistance.
The initiative ‘Greening the Camps’, established in Jordan in 2017, started combating this lack of green spaces within Palestinian camps through the construction of urban farms and rooftop green infrastructures.
The project allows Palestinian refugees to connect with their homeland, resist their occupier's strategy to disconnect them from their identity and make life more hopeful amid uncertainty.
Greening the Camps story
Evi Hellebaut is one of the co-founders of Greening the Camps. As a new architecture graduate, she travelled to Palestine and Jordan and saw the situation of refugees there.
“There was a big lack of green spaces or not at all in Palestinian camps, as well as a loss of the farming heritage of Palestinians’ old generations at the camps, who were really connected with their land,” she tells The New Arab.
We thought: “How can we as architects and designers contribute to more livable cities and stronger communities?” And so Evi started talking to the community of the Gaza refugee camp in Jordan to start their first project.
From the start, Evi tells us that it was very important for them to involve the camps’ community at all stages, “making sure that people felt that it was their own project and not ours. We just went to implement it for them, but they had to carry it on.”
“We gathered some of the younger people of the camp and provided them with woodworking and carpentry workshops. Later they built most of the installations themselves,” she explains.
Involving the local community in the construction and maintenance of the infrastructure made them learn new skills, allow them to construct something of their own and connect them with what their generations had for years been doing in Palestine.
In fact, Evi tells us that, after their team finished assisting them in the construction of the infrastructure, Palestinian refugees themselves took the lead and started doing their own projects, some of which are still going on today.
“Two young men, 18 and 19 years old at the time, settled their own hydroponic project. […] Another project had to do with learning how to make composted and healthy soil, which they now sell at farmers markets in Amman so they can also have a little income out of it.”
She also mentions how some women used the infrastructure to plant the herbs that they used to cook in their traditional kitchen, something that definitely made them feel closer to home.
“It was meaningful, especially for the elder women who kept the tradition of farming in Palestine. Some said that it had been a very long while since they last had their hands in the soil.”
While from the outside it could look like a small and simple initiative, without actual major implications, greening Palestinian camps carries a significance that goes far beyond; and this has to do with Palestinians and their struggle’s strong connection with land and nature.
The environment and the land, key to Palestinian identity and existence
“The environment is my home,” Dalal Radwan, a journalism educator from the Palestinian city of Nablus, tells The New Arab. “The Palestinian landscape is more than geography to me: it is a reminder of where my ancestors lived and where I live now.”
The agricultural surface in Palestine represents around 70% of the land. Most of this surface is devoted to the harvesting of olive trees, which represent the main source of income for around 80,000 Palestinian families. This intimate relationship between Palestinian civilisations and land work dates back generations.
Lamis Qmedat, a young Palestinian working in water and environmental preservation in Ramallah, talks about her connection to the environment as a Palestinian. “I remember when I used to visit my grandmother as a child: all her stories and experiences were about when she was working with her family on the farm.”
Lamis' story is not a particular individual experience, but that of most Palestinians, something that is shown even through Palestinians’ language.
Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh argues that "almost all of the colloquial Palestinian terms relate to the land, to agriculture and to connectivity with the environment."
“This connectivity is key to our identity,” he claims, a relationship that he argues exists between all indigenous peoples and their respective lands. However, this is specifically strong for Palestinians, as their breach is fundamental to Israeli expansion.
Professor Qumsiyeh, who has extensively written about the topic of environmental preservation and Palestinian resistance, draws our attention to the first observations the Zionist body made when entering the land for the first time. “Before the establishment of the Jewish State, they conducted a study of the land and they sent a full report to Vienna. The telegraph simply said: the bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.”
Every piece of land was being cultivated, he explains, adding that people were already living there, and crops were irrefutable proof. “Therefore, they had to dispossess Palestinians from their land,” he tells The New Arab. “It was now not natives who belonged to this land anymore, but Jewish from around the world.”
According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’tselem, Israel has taken control of more than 50% of the land in the West Bank in order to establish settlements. Because the vast majority of the West Bank’s surface is covered by agricultural crops and olive trees, land grabbings result in most if not all cases of the destruction of Palestinian farmland.
“When we hear that a new settlement will be built within the West Bank, we know that olive trees will be destroyed by the Israeli Army, and we know that some Palestinians will lose their lives fighting for their land and protecting the olives,” says Lamis. Dalal, whose city (Nablus) is increasingly targeted by the threat of new settlements. “Preserving and protecting the environment are thus key to preserving Palestinians’ existence,” she adds.
'Any kind of re-connectivity is a form of resistance'
Inside and outside Palestine, natural and green landscapes remind Palestinians of their roots and continuous struggle, and give them hope that, as olive trees do, they will also be able to stay standing for decades.
These spaces allow them to keep their identity alive, and to feel closer to their home.
Lamis, with a sad smile on her face, says that, in Palestine, “We always say: my home is the land where the soil is planted with green things. We do not call an area with big buildings our land. We do not call a place with any infrastructure our land. No. We are belonging to the soil, and the soil is our land.”
That is precisely why the initiative of greening Palestinian refugee camps carries a special significance, and why it is so powerful.
In a context where the appropriation of natural resources has become the foundation for the wiping out of a historical community and its legacy, seemingly small things such as creating a community garden or self-producing the products they used to use in their traditional kitchen are a form of resistance, argues professor Qumsiyeh. “Any kind of re-connectivity is a form of resistance.”
Although Lamis agrees and adds that making refugee camps more livable is also “just a matter of human decency,” she also warns that this should do nothing but encourage us to look at the real goal of the Palestinian struggle.
“These camps, and the good initiatives within them, should not exist at all, and Palestinians should be able to go back to their land."
Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in Middle Eastern and North African politics, as well as environmental matters, at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for Al Jazeera, Oxfam, elDiario.es, and others.
Follow her on Twitter: @biancacarrera25