“30 years ago people in the camp grew vegetables, fruit and herbs inside the camp in buckets and empty oil cans. This continued the farming traditions which stretch back to the villages before the Nakba. But the population has grown since then, houses have been built on top of each other, and the Wall stole all land around the camp…”
Salah Ajarma lives in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, home to between 4-5,000 residents who are living literally on top of each other in tiny houses that can only extend vertically. Ajarma is the Director of Lajee Center, a community-based organisation that works with children and youth in the camp and which is also working to keep alive the refugees’ connection to rights, history and land:
“About two years ago we found some funding to create rooftop gardens inside the camp. It’s a small project but its growing and people love it. We wanted to do something to support people who are in their homes with nothing to do and to help strengthen relationships within the community. It helps to keep people ‘feeling alive’.”
Among those who now have a small but productive greenhouse on the roof of their cramped house in the camp is Mohammad Awarna. Born in Aida camp, Awarna’s father was forced from the village of Ras Abu Amar in 1948:
“My family had 25-30 dunums in Ras Abu Amar and now we have this – a house of 60 square metres, extending upwards, with 22 people living inside.”
Since having open heart surgery Awarna has been unable to work but his rooftop greenhouse keeps him active:
“This helps to support my family, even if only in a small way. I grow lettuce, onions, spinach and herbs, and I want to develop it so I can grow other types of vegetables too. My father used to have a lot of land in Ras Abu Ammar but now we can’t even see it.”
Instead of watching the sun rise and set over the family’s land in Ras Abu Ammar, Awarna’s view is today restricted to concrete houses and Israel’s Apartheid Wall.
Alongside the eight rooftop gardens in Aida camp, a new one is also being established on top of Lajee Center itself. This garden will be used to teach the camp’s children how to develop the project and grow vegetables themselves. Further plans hope to establish a second greenhouse on top of the centre which will be shared by three families whose own rooftops are not suitable for construction but who are keen to be involved.
Inside the new greenhouse above Lajee Center, Salah Ajarma stands underneath the empty tear gas cannisters that have been shot at the centre and now hang from the greenhouse roof offering a stark visual reminder of the daily realities inside Aida camp. Ajarma knows that the project will not feed the entire camp but sees a deeper significance in the work:
“The original refugees are dying as time passes and we must continue to develop projects to defend our history and rights. We cannot let their knowledge die with them. In a small way this project helps to make Palestine green. Maybe it’s not all about what we produce, its also about how it makes us feel…”
Images by MEMO photographer Rich Wiles.