RHS and refugees make the desert bloom

A hundred years on from providing seeds to WWI internees, the RHS is working with the Lemon Tree Trust to supply seeds to Syrian refugees living in Domiz camp in northern Iraq

Domiz campClick to enlarge

A hundred years ago during the First World War, the RHS sent seeds to British citizens who were detained in the Ruhleben internment camp in Germany. Now, in a striking parallel and with the help of the Lemon Tree Trust (a not-for-profit organisation that supports the development of urban agriculture and greening innovation for refugees and displaced people), the RHS has arranged for hundreds of seed packets to be sent to Syrian refugees living in Domiz in northern Iraq so that they can reap the benefits of gardening and growing their own fruit and veg.

Putting down roots

For the millions of people living in refugee camps, the simple act of gardening and growing plants can be a hugely important way to connect with where they have come from and regain some dignity amid the chaos of living in a situation of forced migration. Over history, internees and prisoners of war have also found horticulture a fundamental means to improve their living conditions, not only by growing food but also from the psychological benefits of gardening.
There are many incredible similarities between the two stories 100 years apart, but at the heart is the message that even in the toughest times, gardening is a fundamental human desire – to grow food and to seek solace in cultivating a patch of ground, even in the harshest conditions.


RHS Director General Sue Biggs, says: ‘When I heard about The Lemon Tree Trust Garden at the RHS Chelsea Press Conference earlier this year, the story of the Ruhleben Horticultural Society immediately came to mind due to the striking parallels of the human need to grow and nurture, even in confined and challenging circumstances. A century on, the RHS is delighted to be working with The Lemon Tree Trust to once again help displaced people living in difficult conditions reap some joy from the benefits of gardening, through the airlift of thousands of seeds for them to grow nutritious food and beautiful flowers.’ 

'We're delighted to be working with The Lemon Tree Trust to help displaced people reap joy from the benefits of gardening, through the airlift of thousands of seeds for them to grow nutritious food and beautiful flowers'

RHS Director General, Sue Biggs

Domiz, one of the largest camps in Kurdistan, is home to 26,000 predominantly Syrian refugees. Here the Lemon Tree Trust supports refugees to build gardens to grow food, create beauty and promote wellbeing, community and belonging. This ‘urban greening’ is also essential for providing shade, improving the soil and has wider environmental benefits for all.

British citizens interned at Ruhleben from 1916-18 transformed the camp through their horticultural efforts. The Ruhleben Horticultural Society was set up, with more than 900 members and became an affiliated society of the RHS. The RHS sent regular dispatches of seeds and bulbs to Ruhleben throughout the war and there was regular correspondence, with letters, photographs and reports.

Parallels across time and space

There are many similarities between the two stories, including the dry and dusty growing conditions and limited space available. In both camps, apart from the obvious benefits of fresh food and exercise, cultivating a garden offered - and continues to offer - important emotional and psychological benefits.

Gardening gave a rare opportunity to shape an environment that was largely out of their control and allowed them to lose themselves in the simple but absorbing task of growing plants. And in both camps, gardening and gardens were a strong reminder of home. The desire to grow flowers answers a deep need for beauty and for a more ‘normalised’ existence.
In both Domiz and Ruhleben, garden competitions took place and became a source of pride and dignity to those who took part. The Lemon Tree Trust launched a garden competition three years ago to encourage the residents of Domiz to create gardens, as well as providing an opportunity to engage with people living in the camp.

In the first year, 50 families took part and in the second year the number of entrants grew to 150. Cash prizes were awarded for the best overall garden in each category and each participant was given a lemon tree.

Categories included best small space, best use of recycled materials and community gardening. In 2018, the garden competition will run in four separate camps in Kurdistan.

Growing hope

The RHS, with the support of Mr Fothergill's which sourced the seeds, together sent a shipment of 2,000 packets of seeds out to Domiz in April 2018 and interestingly, even the types of seeds requested were very similar to the ones sent to Ruhleben – edibles including peppers and cucumbers and ornamentals such as marigolds and sunflowers. The seeds have now been distributed in the camp to participants of the Lemon Tree Trust garden competition, who all live in Domiz camp; among them Aveen Ismail (35), and her family, who fled their home in Damascus.

She says: 'My father instilled in me a love of plants and gardening from a young age. We fled Syria in 2012 and when we arrived in Domiz, it was so different from home. Syria is green, but here it was like a desert until we started growing plants and trees.'

'Creating a garden was a way for us to heal and remind us of home. When we learned about the donation from RHS, we were thankful not only for the seeds but also for a feeling of friendship with other gardeners across the world.'

Aveen Ismail, resident of the Domiz camp

Lemon Tree Trust garden at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Chelsea Flower Show Garden

In 2018, the Lemon Tree Trust brought the first-ever refugee-inspired garden to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Inspired by the resilience, determination and ingenuity of refugees living in Domiz camp in northern Iraq, and designed with their input, the garden showed the unexpected beauty hidden in the camp.

In March 2018, Tom Massey, the designer of the Lemon Tree Trust Garden, visited Domiz and met many refugees and saw the gardens they had created, gaining inspiration for his show garden.

Tom says: 'Visiting Domiz has been one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences of my life. I have met some amazing people and have been overwhelmed by their ingenuity and the way they express such individuality in their personal spaces. The people I met do not think of themselves as victims of war. They are strong, resilient and inspiring individuals who have so much to offer and who are willing to share what little they have with their neighbours, friends and us as visitors to their new reality.'

The Lemon Tree Trust’s garden competitions have led to more ambitious and far-reaching projects for the Trust, such as creating and distributing a crisis response garden kit containing tools and seeds to help newly-arrived refugee families. At the centre of the camp a public demonstration garden has been established that residents have named the Azadi (Liberation) Garden.

Stephanie Hunt, founder of the Lemon Tree Trust says: “While it is true that refugee camps often suffer from difficulties including overcrowding, lack of food or basic sanitation, they also become places of hope and ingenuity, places where people raise their children and rebuild their lives. The simple act of planting a tree can be seen as a symbol of hope for the future.”

  • The RHS has worked with Mr Fothergill's to supply the seeds to the refugees.

See also

Discover the history of the Ruhleben Horticultural Society

Find out more about the Lemon Tree Trust's garden at the 2018 RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Edens beyond the razor wire - article from The Garden

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.