April 2009, Syria
'During spring and early summer the Syrian countryside blossoms. From the rolling hills in its northern limits to its vast southern plains, Syrian countryside is covered in a wash of colour,’ says Lubna, a young UNRWA teacher, to her class of eight to ten year olds.
Lubna is attempting to build an awareness and appreciation of the natural environment that surrounds her pupils. 'For me this is as relevant as teaching how to write and read, because it is only through raising eco-awareness amongst our children that we, as Palestinians have a chance of attaining a really durable and better future wherever we might be’. Lubna is a member of the Education Environment Committee, which was formed by a group of UNRWA teachers. The group aims to promote environmental awareness amongst Palestinian children and encourage community participation in environmental activities through the Agency’s network of schools and social centres.
Many of the children in Lubna’s class live in refugee camps, and are sadly deprived access to green countryside and the scenes their teacher is describing to them. 'I have never been to a forest, let alone to a garden, that is why I enjoy these talks about the environment and how we can keep our world clean so much, because it means one day I will also have the chance to see all that wonderful green land with my own eyes’, says nine year-old Noor.
However, efforts are being made to bring greenery into the camps. As part of its approach in tackling environment issues, UNRWA’s Education Department in Syria, in partnership with the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture and the Directorate of Forests, plans to set up a series of educational gardens in different camps around the country. The first garden will be in Dera’a camp.
Located in the southern part of Syria, very close to the Jordanian border, Dera’a is home to many of the country’s poorest Palestine refugees. It is here that Noor’s grandparents arrived in 1948. Since then, the population of the camp, originally constructed using tents and mud shelters, has grown six times; the amount of land allotted for it has, however, remained the same. This has resulted in extreme overcrowding for the 26,500 refugees currently living there amongst narrow streets where there is no green space at all.
'The ultimate goal is to improve people’s lives’ says Jamal Assiwin, the engineer in charge of making Dera’a Camp’s first garden a reality. Created on a piece of land donated by the region’s Governorate, the garden is expected to be finished by the summer. It will be a smoking and plastic-free zone, dotted with 200 species of plants from all over Syria, each of them with explanatory plaques. The garden will be partially maintained by groups of students from UNRWA schools, aptly called 'Green Teams’, as part of an effort to educate them on environmental sustainability and to boost their community spirit. The garden will also provide both Palestine refugees and Syrian citizens alike with an alternative setting for natural and cultural interaction, building social cohesion along the way.
'I am sure that if hope was a color it would be green’, confides Noor after her teacher finishes the lesson; in Dera’a camp’s first garden, she is right.
Text by Diego Gomez-Pickering
Photos by Ingrida Kerusauskaite