The secret gardens of Rohingya refugees

The secret gardens of Rohingya refugees

Thirty-year-old Rashida Begum gathers amaranth, the leaves of which are edible. Within the space of five months, she has not only managed to feed herself but also to sell part of her produce and earn a total of 700 takas.

(Hugo Ribes )

Every day, 20-year-old Nur Mohammed climbs on the top of his hut to inspect his vegetable garden and plunge his hands into the tangle of plants spread over the bamboo roof. For want of space, his fruit and vegetables grow vertically. The refugee reaches up to grab the harvest of the day: a plump green marrow. A member of the Rohingya minority, a stateless Muslim people from western Burma, Nur Mohammed fled to Bangladesh in August 2017, to escape the atrocities being committed by the Burmese army. A bloody military campaign was being waged against the Rohingyas – which a UN fact-finding mission deemed genocidal.

Over the space of two years, more than 740,000 people fled the massacres and crossed the border into south-east Bangladesh, near the town of Cox’s Bazaar. The number of displaced people has now reached almost a million, squeezed into a series of camps. The Kutupalong camp, with more than 630,000 people, has become the largest refugee camp in the world.

On the edge of Camp No. 14, in Ukhia, Nur Mohammed and his pregnant wife watch over the beans, marrows and a spindly papaya plant. Their small garden is a source of pride. “All the neighbours want vegetables from me!” exclaims this former farmer, who once owned a house, cattle and farmland. “When I work in the vegetable garden, it reminds me of home,” he says, nostalgically. His makeshift garden brings a lost world back to life.

“I was sick and tired of doing nothing”

Many Rohingya refugees cultivate the dry land in the camps, as they used to in Burma, as a way of making everyday life a little better. So many, in fact, that the landscape is overrun with greenery, climbing over the tightly packed tents as far as the eye can see. Gourds, spinach, chilli peppers, coriander, pumpkins and other vegetables sprout in the crevices of plastic and bamboo. Space is scarce, so the vegetable gardens grow vertically.

The camps are overcrowded: 93 per cent of the population lives below the emergency standards set by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which recommends 45 square metres per person. In some parts of the Kutupalong camp, the space available per person is just eight square metres. So people have to be inventive. One family has made hanging planters out of plastic bottle bottoms to accommodate their smaller plants. Elsewhere, crops are grown in nets stretched between two huts.

Thirty-year-old Mohamad Ayoub has built a scarecrow out of old clothes. “It’s not to scare away the birds but the children,” he smiles. “I don’t want them coming and trampling over the plot.” A cook by trade, he shows us his utensils, a pestle and a gigantic ladle. He is delighted to be gardening: “I was sick and tired of doing nothing.”

Life in the camps is difficult, with no prospects. Bangladesh wants the refugees to return to Burma as soon as possible, but all the attempts to repatriate them over the past two years or so have failed. The Rohingyas are refusing to return for the time being as they fear further persecution in their country of origin. Meanwhile, as refugees, they are not allowed to work, study or move freely within Bangladesh. The isolation they suffer has increased since the Bangladeshi authorities cut off 3G and 4G access in the camps. And the army has started to install barbed wire fencing around them. In this oppressive environment, much like an open-air prison, every square centimetre of garden offers a chance to escape.

Some refugees receive support for growing crops from humanitarian organisations such as the World Food Programme (WFP), which, together with the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC (originally known the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), provides equipment (watering cans, hoe, rope), advice, fertiliser and seeds – but there are restrictions on the latter. The Bangladeshi Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change refuses to allow perennial crops to be planted in the camps. For the authorities, the refugees have to leave the hills of Bangladesh as soon as possible.

Greater autonomy and dietary variety

The WFP wants to step up its work with the refugee gardeners. “We have helped more than 7,000 families, and we want to extend our work to 20,000 families over the next six months,” says WFP coordinator Louis Tran Van Lieu. The initiative is having a positive impact. It helps refugees become more self-reliant and vary their diet – the basic rations are limited to rice, lentils and oil, although an e-voucher system, giving access to shops and a wider variety of food, is being phased in.

Fifty-two-year-old Mustafa Khatum and his family are particularly committed to the garden. They all help to look after the plants which, depending on the season, allow them to vary their meals with cucumbers or beans. Gardening is also a way to build social ties.

“When the refugees reached Bangladesh, they didn’t know each other, they had to fight for a piece of land,” says Tran Van Lieu of the WFP. “Vegetable gardens encourage people to think collectively about space. They help build a sense of community. Many refugees share their seeds and crops.”

Dressed in a niqab, 57-year-old Fatima Begum cooks for her children and neighbours on a small plot of land bordered by a bamboo fence. Her garden has helped her make friends, but not everything is rosy. “A few days ago, someone stole a gourd plant from us,” says the mother. The garden is one of her few belongings. It is very important to her. She says it makes her feel better. That when she cultivates it, she finds “peace”.

Despite the ban on working, the gardens provide some refugees with an opportunity to barter and earn some money. In Kutupalong camp, 30-year-old Rashida Begum takes advantage of the waning late afternoon sun to pick handfuls of edible amaranth leaves. Set on the banks of a muddy stream, her vegetable garden gives her a good yield. Part of the amaranth harvest is for her children, the other is for her sister: “I haven’t bought any vegetables from the market in the last few months, I’ve harvested everything here,” says the young woman in a pink headscarf. Whenever she can, she sells any surplus produce from the garden. She smiles: “I managed to earn more than 700 takas (€8) in five months.” She even offers her customers a special deal: two vegetables for the price of one.

Building bridges between Bangladeshis and Rohingya refugees

The refugees use compost supplied through BRAC to facilitate the growth of their vegetable gardens. The fertiliser is purchased outside the camps. It is made by Bangladeshi women in the surrounding villages with the help of BRAC and the WFP. The compost doesn’t look like much. It is just moist, dark soil, full of earthworms. But it is building bridges between Bangladeshis and refugees at a time when relations between the two communities are increasingly tense. Many Bangladeshis see the Rohingyas as intruders, as a burden on a country that is already very poor.

“Since they arrived, not only have food prices gone up but the daily wage has gone down, as businesses are hiring refugees for less,” says Farida Yasmin, one of the Bangladeshi women who, with support from BRAC and the WFP, makes compost in the village of Chepot. The 23-year-old woman shows us the dark, freshly moistened humus, which will turn into the precious compost that sells for 25 takas (€0.30) a kilo.

“The women in this area do not traditionally work,” explains Tran Van Lieu. “We are helping vulnerable Bangladeshi women to start their own businesses, and we are realising that it benefits their whole community, their husbands, their neighbours and their children.”

The camps are now an economic opening for Farida and her colleagues. Their outlook is changing. “I know that our compost is used in the camps and I am happy that refugees can benefit from our production.” Farida, who also sells clothes, is seeing her future gradually transformed. Since she started earning money, she has been sending her children to school.

This story has been translated from French.

This article was partly funded by the European Journalism Centre (EJC), through its Global Health Journalism Grant Programme for France.