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How Refugees Are Growing Food From Discarded Foam Mattresses

Published on February 24th 2020
A person sitting at a table
An arid desert landscape is the last place you’d expect to find a green oasis, but amid the corrugated shelters and makeshift homes of Za’atari refugee camp, a garden is sprouting into life.
This tennis-court sized patch of lush greenery is no mirage. It’s been made possible because scientists at Sheffield University have pioneered a way of producing fresh veg using old foam mattresses, upcycled containers and water. Thanks to the Desert Garden Project the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees now has a means of growing its own food and, amazingly, there’s not a bag of compost in sight.
Rehab Osman Khalifa, Community Services Officer at Za'atari
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While visiting the settlement in the sweltering summer of 2016, chemistry professor Tony Ryan learnt that many of Za’atari’s population are farmers who come from the Dara’a region in Syria, an area known for its fertile earth. “At home they were farmers, engineers, teachers, doctors, so not only have they been forcibly displaced, but also forcibly unemployed. And they can’t do anything that even looks like it might lead to permanence, like getting a job or fixing their house. Despite this, the eagerness to put a plan into action was truly astounding, and many smiles and jokes were exchanged. It is incredible to see the resilience of the Za’atari folk,” writes Ryan in a dispatch from 2017.
However, Jordanian law prohibits anyone from planting directly into the ground, and any would-be green fingers are stunted further by limited water resources and salty soil. Professor Ryan had already been conducting research into how foam could be used to grow plants without soil via hydroponics, so when he was shown around a camp warehouse lined with discarded mattresses, the lightbulb moment hit.
A group of people standing in front of a building
Prof Duncan Cameron and Prof Tony Ryan
Growing crops in this way has put a dent in the mattress pile and also makes good use of other readily available waste materials. Yoghurt pots, coffee cups and plastic bottles are recycled into containers for a myriad of herbs and leafy greens. Instead of soil, the plant’s roots are supported by the foam, which is then pumped with nutrient-enriched water. It’s a less water-intensive process than traditional farming so a good fit for Jordan’s dust bowl conditions.
More than 650 refugees have been trained in this earth-free farming method. Now the project is aiming to raise £250,000 to provide enough fertiliser, seeds and hydroponic starter kits for the community to become self-sufficient within the next three years.
Abu Wessam
Desert Garden project lead and Dr Moaed Al Meselmani says: "The work we have been carrying out in Zaatari has provided the people in the camp with fresh herbs and vegetables, training opportunities and the greenery they have longed-for in a harsh desert landscape.
"The Desert Garden project gives people the tools and skills they need to grow their own fresh produce and gain future employment, as well as boosting their mental health - it connects people with home and gives them hope for the future."

Three more innovative hydroponic projects around the world

Growing crops in unused underground spaces
Down in the depths of a former WW2 air-raid shelter, you’ll find Growing Underground, London’s (and possibly the world’s) first subterranean farm. It grows micro herbs and salads in neat rows bathed in millennial pink LEDs. The hydroponic system uses 70% less water than conventional agriculture, requires zero pesticides and means Londoners can pick up flavour-packed greens without the polluting air miles. La Caverne is a similar project which has taken root in an abandoned basement carpark in Paris.
New shoots from old shipping containers
Who needs soil and tractors when you’ve got shipping containers and hydroponics? Not Local Roots, an LA start-up bringing local, organic greens to urban America. Housed in 40ft shipping containers, just one TerraFarm can produce a bountiful crop equal to five acres of traditional farmland and with only one to three per cent of the water.
A backyard farm defying drought conditions
Severe drought and a crippling economic crisis have left some 45 million Zimbabweans needing food aid but one mother is defying the odds by growing her own delicious vegetables using 90% less water. Venensia Mukarati has transformed her backyard into a hydroponic farm capable of yielding nearly 3,000 plants per cycle. 160 HydroFarm now supplies Harare’s top restaurants and Mukarati is training other women to do the same.
Donate to the Desert Garden appeal here.

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