#IAMSYRIAN: Muhannad’s garden

Planting seeds of hope at refugee camp

Story by Shaza Moghraby

Muhannad Balkhi’s obsession with science has evolved into a lush vegetable garden in the middle of a Jordanian desert — a small oasis for Muhannad and his family after they fled the conflict in Syria. Now other residents of the camp are following his example.

Muhannad spent most of his childhood playing in his family’s farm, mesmerized about how something as tiny as a seed could grow into a colourful tree. After graduating from high school with top marks, Muhannad decided to pursue his passion and study science at university.

“Everything I could ever want I had. But then the war happened.”

He worked as a science teacher for a few years after graduating but like many other young men his age, he decided to give up a career in education for the sake of an office-based job that offered higher pay.

“I had a good job. I met and married the girl of my dreams, Nahed, and a year later we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl, Mayas, and then my boy Murad. Everything I could ever want I had. But then the war happened.”

Muhannad Balkhi at work in his garden, where he grows vegetables incuding aubergines, beans and bell peppers. Photo: WFP/Mohammad Batah

After spending almost three years moving his family from one area to another to escape the violence that has engulfed his country, Muhannad decided to take the difficult decision to leave Syria and move to Jordan.

“I heard about this new camp in Jordan. It took a lot to convince my wife that it will be okay as a temporary solution.”

“There was no life at all. You can’t even hear the sound of birds.”

However, as soon as he arrived at Azraq camp in October 2014, he immediately regretted the decision: “There was no life at all. You can’t even hear the sound of birds.”

One day last year, after having to leave the camp with his wife so she could undergo minor surgery, he came across a street market selling birds. He bought five baby chicks. “The children enjoyed playing with them. It brought liveliness to our home.”

Muhannad’s son Murad helps feed the family’s birds, which have added some “liveliness” to the family’s home. Photo: WFP/Mohammad Batah

With time on his hands and a renewed sense of energy, Muhannad took this as an opportunity to resurrect his passion for science — using the desert soil as a testing ground.

“Whatever I got my hands on — tomato seeds, beans, cucumbers — I planted to see whether or not it would grow.”

“I will be trying out a formula I have put together.”

A few months later, the results started to show: “You can grow aubergines, beans, bell peppers, rosemary, mint and squash. I’m working on potatoes at the moment.

“I’ve tried to grow them before but it didn’t work, so I will be trying out a formula I have put together to treat the soil.”

Muhannad in his garden, where he hopes to grow potatoes next. Photo: WFP/Mohammad Batah

Today, Muhannad’s garden has become a sensation around the camp, encouraging many other residents to copy the experiment.

“It’s common human nature to want to feel that you are useful,” says Muhannad. “The assistance my family gets from WFP has allowed us to make ends meet but, as they say, you give a man fish you feed him for a day. You teach him how to fish you feed him for a lifetime. I think my garden stands as an example for this.”

For WFP, Muhannad and many others like him stand as a classic example of why adopting programmes that provide work opportunities for vulnerable Syrians is so essential.

Since the start of the conflict, WFP has been supporting over half a million Syrians in Jordan with life-saving, direct assistance. But with the crisis entering its sixth year such support on its own is no longer enough.

Muhannad moved to Jordan with his wife and two children, Mayas (left) and Murad. Photo: WFP/Mohammad Batah

As part of its vision for 2017, WFP in Jordan is embarking on an ambitious agricultural project with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). This will offer cash in return for work carried out by vulnerable Syrian refugee families in Azraq camp — as well as unemployed Jordanians living in the Azraq area — in the field of agriculture, land development and family farming.

The aim is to have Syrian and Jordanian farmers involved in the project produce enough to supply WFP partner supermarkets, and eventually the local market at large.

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