100-year history of supporting POWs and refugees with seeds

hundred years on from providing seeds to WWI prisoners of war, the the Lemon Tree Trust is working with the RHS to supply seeds to Syrian refugees in Domiz camp, Kurdistan region of Iraq.

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, 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.

In 1918 the RHS sent seeds to British citizens who were prisoners of war in the Ruhleben internment camp in Germany. Now, in a striking parallel and with the help of the Lemon Tree Trust, the RHS has delivered seeds to Syrian refugees living in Domiz in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. There are many incredible similarities between the two stories, 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.

During the First World War, thousands of British Citizens inGermany were arrested and sent to the Ruhleben internment camp. The prisoners of war started growing vegetables and ornamentals to beautify the otherwise severe living conditions and transformed the camp through their horticultural efforts. The Ruhleben Horticultural Society was set up, with over 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.

A 100 years on, the RHS has recreated this initiative by sending a selection of ornamental and edible seeds to the refugees in Domiz, one of the largest camps in Kurdistan, which is home to 26,000 predominantly Syrian refugees. Since 2015 the Lemon Tree Trust has supported gardening initiatives here as a way to restore dignity, purpose, and cultural identity, bringing people together through the provision of seeds and plants, gardencompetitions and education centres.

Both stories centre around gardeners striving for beauty in dry and dusty growing conditions and with limited space and resources. In both camps, apart from the obvious benefits of fresh food and exercise, gardening offered and continues to offer important emotional and psychological benefits. In Ruhleben, gardening offered prisoners 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 provide a strong reminder of home. The desire to grow ornamental plants answers a deep need for beauty and for a more ‘normalised’ existence.

In Ruhleben, 100 years ago, 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, tripling in the second year. Cash prizes areawarded 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. This year the garden competition will run in five separate camps in Kurdistan with over 600 entrants.

The first garden competition was held in Ruhleben Camp in April 1917, with exhibits of bulbs displayed and judged to RHS standards. It was such a success that it was followed by a Summer Show where 1400 plants were displayed. Medals and certificates were provided by the RHS and there were over 100 entries.

The RHS sent a shipment of 2,000 packets of seeds 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. Aveen Ismail, the Lemon Tree Trust Community Outreach Officer in Domiz, is helping to judge this year’s competition. She and her family 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.”

Sue Biggs, Director General of the Royal Horticultural Society said:

“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.  100 years 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.”

To find out more about the Lemon Tree Trust Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018 click here.


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