As we’ve adjusted to life in a world immeasurably changed by the invisible enemy of COVID-19, many of us have had time to re-evaluate what is important to us. Some of us have even had time to enjoy, away from the usual routines and pressures of daily life. We are all trying to come to terms with a ‘new normal’ and we have all made difficult choices at home, at school and at work. We have renewed respect for all of the essential workers we rely on to keep our societies running. There are many positives to be found among the rubble of our former lives.

To imagine for a second that this virus has been a ‘leveller’, or that it has affected us all in equal measure is, at best, naïve. This virus has highlighted to an even greater degree the gaping chasms of inequality faced by people in every country across the globe. For people living in fear, in poverty, in war, in hiding, this virus has made their difficult lives almost impossible. Being told to ‘stay home’ when you live alone on the 14th floor of a high-rise block of flats with young vulnerable children, for example, must be heart-breaking. Being placed under curfew in a 3 x 6 metre tented shelter in a closed refugee camp in mid-summer with your extended family is, for most of us, unimaginable.

“I have a humble garden at my house. I started working on it two years ago with my children and we have spent many good times in it, especially since the coronavirus curfews have been in place. My garden contains 20 different types of rose; each one has a different colour. I also grow grapes, figs, cypress and pine.”

Ahmed Ibrahim Ismail, Domiz 2 camp, Kurdistan

“I started gardening three years ago to keep myself busy and for the comfort it brings. I now spend 5 hours every day in my garden, cleaning and watering. My favourite plants are grapes, roses, mint and parsley. COVID-19 has affected us all psychologically but it has had a particularly negative impact on the children here. My family and I spend time in the afternoons sitting together in the garden we have made.”

Hadeya Ezzeldin Ismail, Gawillan camp, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

The Lemon Tree Trust (LTT) supports people in refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) to grow food and flowers, both at their shelters and in refugee-led community gardens in camps. We run annual garden competitions in camps, distribute seeds, plants and garden kits and we fund community gardens. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Kurdistan Regional Government has restricted internal travel in the region, placing people under strict ‘stay-in-shelter’ curfews to limit the spread of the virus. Refugee and IDP camps have been closed to external visitors and people are no longer allowed to leave to go to work. We estimate at least 40% of people in Domiz 1 camp alone have lost their jobs, meaning their families’ only source of income has been lost.

Back in March 2020, when it quickly became apparent that we needed to adapt our plans for this year, we asked our team the same questions we have been asking since our inception back in 2015. ‘What do people need?’ and ‘What do people want?’ The answer was simple: seeds. People were worried about access to fresh food, not only due to transport restrictions, but also affordability. Only a fraction of people who live in the camps receive food vouchers and most must purchase their food. Moreover, as people spent more time at home, and were less able to get out to socialise, they needed activities to do with their families, at their shelter. Like so many of us, home gardens are a sanctuary, now more than ever, and we are more determined this year that we will help people grow food, for joy and for hope.

Khokhi Hasso Silo is 39. She lives in Khanki camp with her husband and six children having fled to the Kurdistan region from Sinjar in Iraq to escape Isis. She says:

“We are people used to living in villages in the countryside and we used to visit neighbours and relatives a lot. Coronavirus has deprived us of that, and this has been very difficult. It has also deprived people of their livelihoods. At home people feel bored because of unemployment and we must occupy ourselves in order not to be overcome by negative thoughts. We occupy ourselves with our garden. We grow and harvest clean and fresh food and it gives us somewhere to sit with each other, and this helps us psychologically.”

Our response to the outbreak of COVID-19 has been simple: we have pledged to distribute 100,000 packets of seeds to people living in situations of forced migration and thanks to a partnership with Mr Fothergills Seeds in the UK, and an international ‘seed appeal’ asking gardeners to send us their spare seed, we are on track to deliver this. We have made our garden competitions virtual this year, encouraging anyone with a garden to send us photos, with winners announced every week. With the support of the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK, we have created a series of gardening activities for families that we will make free to download from our website and distribute digitally to as many people as possible this year.

A common misconception of people living in refugee camps is that they are completely reliant on international and host government aid, but in our experience in the KRI, this is simply not the case. Most people provide for their families and contribute to their local community. Many people have found work in the camps or in the nearest town or city. While the region copes with and recovers from the long-term economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hope that by providing packets of food and flower seeds we are not only helping food security for vulnerable families but we are also supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of people who are dealing with yet another challenge. Crucially though, we are having a conversation with people as gardeners, not as recipients of aid. We are learning about growing together, sharing experiences along the way and celebrating the colour, creativity and joy that gardens bring us the world over.

How you can help:

You can make a donation to support our work or send us any spare food or flower seeds and we will forward them to our projects in Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Visit lemontreetrust.org/donate or email info@lemontreetrust.org for details of where to send seeds.

Photograph: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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