Greening the Rubble: Syrians Embrace Urban Farming to Stave off Starvation

Ansar Hevi of 15th Garden explains how the program teaches urban Syrians how to grow their own food, empowering people to feed themselves.

Written byKatarina Montgomery Published on Oct. 28, 2014 Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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An estimated 240,000 people are living under siege in Syria, according to U.N. figures – putting them in communities without steady access to food, water or electricity. The Syrian government has been accused of deliberately cutting off those vital resources in rebel-held areas, in a strategy that’s been called “starvation or submission” – deprivation as a weapon of war.

In response, several community groups have begun to grow food inside their war-torn towns to stave off starvation. Urban farming has emerged as a coping strategy, to fill in the gaps between sporadic food deliveries.

Syria has had a tradition of urban farming for over 60 years. But the continuous violence, a lack of access to water and supplies, and varied levels of knowledge in farming techniques has made it hard to practice.

That’s where Ansar Hevi decided to step in, working with a program to support Syria’s urban farmers. Hevi, a German-Iraqi woman who has spent time in Syria, works with the 15th Garden, a farmers’ solidarity network supporting Syrians looking to grow their own food.

“There are many groups in Syria doing this type of farming,” Hevi told Syria Deeply.

“They had to watch YouTube videos on how to farm … In Yarmouk, they were trying to plant parsley, onions, and potatoes, but they didn’t know where to get seeds from because of the siege,” she said.

The 15th Garden has held workshops in Turkey and Beirut, teaching urban farming techniques to Syrians who can then take the knowledge with them back into the country. It has also delivered thousands of seeds from European countries to people inside Syria. Hevi spoke to Syria Deeply in Beirut about the project and what it aims to achieve.

Syria Deeply: What are some of the obstacles you faced in creating the 15th Garden?

Hevi: It quickly emerged that the biggest barrier to creating these farms was the lack of seeds. Syria has been a centralized [economy], so farmers had to give the seeds back to the state after they were harvested.

Once farmers in Europe learned that the Syrian government is using starvation as a submission tactic, they began to think about how they could contribute, and they came to realize it was with seeds.

We now have a good network of farmers donating seeds. All of the seeds are organic, which makes sense in the context of war, since in war you don’t have access to chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Syria Deeply: How and where are Syrians implementing the urban farms?

Hevi: All of these areas have different circumstances, so their approach is very different. In Qalamoun, they suffer from daily shelling, and the regime is trying to destroy fields. In some areas of Qalamoun they wanted to use rooftops, but the rooftops aren’t safe because of regime snipers. People ended up farming in destroyed houses because they thought they wouldn’t be targeted twice. Now that winter is approaching, Qalamoun is cold, so it is easier to farm inside the houses – there is a greenhouse effect.

Yarmouk is an urban area, so farming is not the first thing that comes to mind. The first obstacle was to find a place they could plant. There are no fields, so they found a garbage dump. It was the only place big enough to do the planting. They were happy to get rid of the garbage, and the lower layers of the [soil] were very fertile.

Yarmouk also has a water problem, so there are huge costs to the projects. You now need fuel to use generators to get water from the ground. A liter of fuel can cost up to $10. Urban farmers use horses instead of tractors in Germany, but residents of Yarmouk don’t have this option, because all of these animals died from malnutrition or were eaten by the local population.

In Yarmouk, they also don’t traditionally have farmers, so we supported them by bringing in seeds and teaching them about which kind of seeds they could use. The farmers in Germany were very useful in this knowledge exchange.

Syria Deeply: How many places have these farms? How have the farms impacted the local population and economy?

Hevi: With time, all over Syria, more and more people are writing to me asking to get connected to people doing this farming. In Yarmouk, they have now planted eggplants, zucchinis and tomatoes, but are now looking to plant lentils and food that can be stored. They feed the most vulnerable people … the harvests have a direct impact on the local economy.

In the besieged areas, there are many people benefiting from the siege itself. They are taking commission on food or they are trying to hold food back until prices rise. Some people can get food from the black market if they have money. When [urban farmers] started to produce food, since another source of available food was available, the prices of food went down.

Syria Deeply: When did you realize the potential of this project?

Hevi: After eight months of siege in southern Damascus, the U.N. brought in food baskets this February … [but] a couple of months later, they weren’t able to [reach] into besieged areas. By that time, the activists had planted 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of zucchini that they could distribute to the people.

I realized the potential of this project when the food baskets stopped being delivered to Yarmouk and there was a substitute for civilians without food. Every day counts when people are starving.

The 15th Garden project was supported by Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Middle East office.