Permaculture for Refugees, formed in 2016 by a group of dedicated permaculture teachers, arose from a deep conviction that permaculture would be desired, valued and effective for refugees in camps and settlements.
Understanding that refugee settlements and camps were often unresponsive to the needs of their residents, a small team from Italy, the Philippines, Greece and Australia embarked on an ambitious program to transform problems into solutions.
Tailored Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs) were designed for refugees across a diverse range of ages, religions, languages and nationalities, residing at sites in Bangladesh, Turkey, Greece and Malaysia. The team hoped to gain evidence that showed the permaculture world had something effective, and of value, to offer refugees, camp managers, INGOs and NGOs. They also wanted to work with host community organisations and embed permaculture into the refugee culture.
In early January 2019, a team landed in Bangladesh, home to nearly one million displaced Rohinga, expelled from their country by the Myanmar military. Here, the team partnered with the Bangladesh Association of Sustainable Development (BASD), a local organisation with a strong permaculture base and a staff of 70, who were able to organise almost everything, even as they navigated the unpredictable and spontaneous rules and regulations of the camp manager, which created difficulties in starting the course.
Five weeks later – despite cockroaches, sick stomachs, mosquitos, flu, chickens, persistent noise and interruptions – two PDC courses had been completed. One worked with disadvantaged local Bangla farmers, while the other consisted of twenty-five participants from Camp 19, home to 50,000 refugees. Immediate developments included a design for a local school, created by the local people, and a redesign for part of the camp, transforming it into a neighbourhood of a few thousand people.
The results were exciting: in addition to the designs they created, each refugee participant committed to teach 100 others what they had learned. Within a few weeks, around 2500 people were practising some sort of permaculture, from nursery work to planting. Gardens were most wanted because the poor-quality camp food was rationed and sometimes scarce.
Not long after the courses finished, the Permaculture for Refugees team received photos of whole sections of the camp transformed, and other NGOs working on the ground were eager to know the secret to such an effective project. The BASD staff continued to spend time in the camp, assisting with problems and providing seeds. Permaculture practices are now widespread, as refugees learn from each other. Inspired and motivated by the successes of the program in Camp 19, BASD is keen to reproduce the program in nearby Camp 6, with graduate participants in the first program leading the next teaching series.
In the five months following those early successes in Bangladesh, Permaculture for Refugees have taught refugees across the world in diverse situations, from temporary residents in transit camps in Greece to Syrian women settled in Turkey. Each student they have worked with has created a design for their own living space.
The positive impacts associated with bringing permaculture teaching to the students are immeasurable. These projects illustrate the enormous potential and value permaculture can have on the lives of refugees worldwide. The students value the opportunity to learn permaculture and to practise it where individuality and creativity is often actively discouraged. They value being able to grow food where the food is quite horrible and rationed. They particularly enjoy having a valuable productive pastime that transforms the dust, polluted water and environment of their living spaces into green and productive gardens instead that they can be proud of. Many have gone on to teach others and so permaculture is spreading.