SIDON, Lebanon: Salwa Sleiman is tending to her greenhouse, which is crammed with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
But this is not an ordinary greenhouse; it is made of plastic and sits on top of her house in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon. “I turned the bathtubs into flower beds. That’s where I plant all my vegetables. I also have a fig tree and vines up here on the roof of my house,” she told The Daily Star.
Sleiman’s is just one of 11 rooftop greenhouses in the camp that the Nashet Social and Cultural Association says can provide a source of income for families, and even change stereotypes about refugee camps. Nashet and Medico International erected the greenhouses among six of the camp’s neighborhoods, including Sleiman’s neighborhood of Baraksat.
Densely populated camps such as Ain al-Hilweh lack the space to grow plants. Although there are some orchards on the camp’s outskirts, the majority belong to private owners.
“Of course, it is true that agriculture is not sufficient to provide families with a full income because of the size of the rooftops themselves,” said Kamal al-Hajj, another beneficiary of the project.
Hajj said the project had been conceived with the hardships of camp life in mind, including low income levels, high unemployment and the rollback of UNRWA services.
Last year, the organization that organizes services in Palestinian camps in the region was left with a $446 million funding gap when U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration announced a crippling funding cut.
“The project only requires simple materials that can be acquired at low cost: soil, fertilizers, water, air and sun. With these things you can grow tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, zucchini and sweet peppers,” Hajj said.
“Within a few weeks, the plant begins to grow and then to produce, until the vegetables are ready to be sold at a later stage.”
Wafaa Issa, the project’s supervisor for Nashet, hopes that the concept will transfer to other camps in Lebanon. “The Rashidieh camp near Tyre will be the second camp after Ain al-Hilweh. The aim is that the project will be like a benign virus, moving from camp to camp, in order to extend to the greatest possible number of Palestinian refugee camps,” she told The Daily Star.
“Our studies have shown that we can expand the number of greenhouses in Ain al-Hilweh to 50, once we get the funding from necessary donor bodies,” Eissa said.
The project took inspiration from a similar rooftop greenhouse project in the Deheisheh camp in Palestine’s occupied West Bank, she noted. Donors became interested, she said, when they found out that the construction of each greenhouse cost only $1,500.
She expressed hope that the project could change fixed opinions about refugee camps in Lebanon.
“I am not exaggerating when I say that we will be happy for the day when we see the roofs of Ain al-Hilweh turned into a green oasis. It will erase the ... stereotype of a camp as a forest of weapons,” she said. “Instead, it will be a green forest.”
“We are working on a flower-planting project, and another is in consideration that would connect refugees with the outside market, because productivity within the camp is currently weak,” she added. Writing by Jacob Boswall