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Refutrees: Reconnecting Palestinians to their roots

October 6, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Over the course of the past year, we have heard UNRWA warn about the shortage in its budgets and the affect this will have on the aid it can provide to Palestinian refugees, Refutrees is a grassroots organisation set up to ensure refugees are self-reliant and not dependent on international aid.

Set up as a sustainable project that gives Palestinian refugees the ability to be independent and also reconnects them with their land and farms, the organisation helps refugees return to the traditional farming industry. Its name – which combines the words refugee and trees – stems from the organisation’s desire to maintain and nurture the bond that Palestinian refugees have with their land and agriculture.

Inspired by Founder and Director Lamya Hussain’s academic research, Refutrees grew out of Hussain’s fieldwork and the interviews she had with Palestinian refugees across camps in the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon. Hussain found existing development projects incapable of addressing community-based needs.

Having completed a Masters in Environmental Studies and a Graduate Diploma in International Humanitarian Law and Refugee Studies, Hussain set her sights on creating an alternative to existing projects that recycled dependency and failed to address issues of health, environment, planning and sustainability. The vision Hussain had aimed at ending reliance on donors.

At the beginning, Refutrees received huge support from Hussain’s long-time mentor Professor Fahim Quadir and friend Kofi Achampong. Both joined its Board of Directors and helped create the organisation and register it as an official entity in Canada. Hussain admits that it was a slow process but gradually she has been able to recruit young, like-minded individuals that shared her vision and ideas. “Today, we have a diverse team of architects, environmentalists, lawyers, engineers and academics that contribute and volunteer time in project design and implementation.”

To date, Refutrees has only focussed on Palestinian refugees. The organisation’s limited capacity means it is unable to work with others but Hussain hopes this will change in the future. She hopes to work with Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Although the organisation prioritises women and farmers, Hussain admits: “We understand their specific status and encourage their participation in our projects. But we cannot assume a role of women rights advocacy or empowerment unless we critically embed ourselves within the more traditional fabric of local NGOs.”

In spite of being Women’s Entrepreneur Day (WED) World Ambassador at UN, Hussain has to constantly remind herself and the entire Refutrees team that they are limited in their ability to intervene. “We support and extend energies where we can to stand with women activists and networks but we never duplicate their efforts or compete for resources.”

Working closely with refugees and developing Refutrees has been “an incredible journey”, according to Hussain who recalls all the moments of joy and adversity that shaped “our collective understanding of the people and places we work at. For me, refugees are real heroes that are challenging global perceptions of identity, citizenship, borders, and governance. They teach us the most complex and mind-boggling things that push us outside our comfort zones in order to try and comprehend what ‘displacement’ can do to one person, family or a community.”

The most powerful or memorable moment during her long journey with Refutrees includes the many encounters of “shaking hands, pats on the backs from ordinary people in the communities we work in.” For Hussain, nothing stands out more than any other as every completed project provides a new memory. These are the moments that Hussain feels are the real motivators for the team to continue working and keep “striving to change the ‘greyness’ of camps into communities where families grow, children play, youth can hangout and the elderly can watch a new generation foster.”

Refutrees’ most recent project “Kale Project Palestine” is one that is more significant to Hussain as it started with great challenges in altering the community’s mindset around kale: a rough and bitter plant. “We also had to be careful how we plant, grow and harvest the crop in the soil, water and climate conditions in the West Bank. Nonetheless, we were successful in producing at least three different varieties of kale and created a small and active kale lovers community.” The team’s next step is to train female farmers to grow kale and link them to smaller local markets. Additionally, Refutrees hopes to uphold organic standards and create greater awareness on the health and nutritional aspects of kale.

The organisation is currently undergoing some changes; its team will soon launch their “Labour for Love” series. This will include new projects that will build on the group’s existing experiences to address community issues of water, waste, urban planning and agriculture. Hussain is hoping that Refutrees can challenge traditional development and how it operates in the Middle East.

Between the war and the policies that are designed to perpetuate dependency, complex poverty cycles and neo-liberal reforms, the Middle East is extremely vulnerable, she explains. “Refutrees has the potential to grow and alter how communities are designed, planned and built, in particular refugee communities. We hope that in the next decade we will challenge citizenship and identity politics across borders and help create opportunities for displaced people to live in communities that are not designed to isolate and exclude people.”

Find Refutrees on their website, Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

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