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Home Garden Competitions in Domiz Refugee Camp

Home gardens in refugee camps have been shown to make a huge difference to the local environment and to individual lives. The work of the Lemon Tree Trust (LTT) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has shown how running garden competitions for camp residents encourages people to take innovative approaches to using any available space and water to plant herbs, vegetables and flowers.

The first LTT garden competition took place in Domiz 1 camp in 2016. By employing local coordinators to promote the competition within camp neighbourhoods, LTT supported households to create gardens around their tents and shelters, building on initiatives that people were already taking. The competition focussed on encouraging people to grow ornamental plants, not simply growing for food. Households were given advice on safe ways to recycle grey water to irrigate their plants and were encouraged to share ideas on growing vertically or in recycled containers. In three seasons the camp was noticeably transformed from a largely dusty environment to a green and vibrant city.


In 2016, after supporting garden development for refugee communities in the USA, LTT looked at possibilities for greening refugee camps in Iraq. The Syrian crisis had led to the sudden creation of large camps in the north for Syrian Kurds, which to begin with were bleak areas covered in tents. Domiz 1 camp was established in 2011 and LTT first visited the camp in 2015. 

By offering trees and working with local coordinators, LTT was able to gain official permission for people to plant around their houses. Its activities supported a nursery which had been established in the camp to sell plants to the growing number of gardeners keen to create a home garden. Wastewater in camp conditions is often problematic and by encouraging water recycling and diverting water run off they were able to turn a potential problem into an advantage to the area as a whole. The LTT competition offered plants from a local nursery  to support people to establish their gardens, stimulating the local economy. Seeds were distributed to entrants and cash prizes were offered as further incentive to take part, with categories including: best overall garden, best garden in small space, best community garden, best vegetable garden and best use of recycled materials.

"This garden reminds me of my childhood, my land, it also benefits me for food, essentially it connects me to my homeland."



  • Improvement of local environment with greener spaces and cleaner air

  • Environmental advantage of additional tree planting

  • Reduction in areas of water run-off and water borne diseases

  • Potential to reduce food brought into camp and waste water taken out


  • Increased sense of individual well-being from green spaces

  • Increased levels of physical activity through gardening

  • Community cohesion through sharing of seeds and plants

  • Home grown food and herbs allow people to cook traditional, local dishes

  • Extends limited space in shelter to outside area in which to socialise


How can home gardens increase wellbeing in refugee settlements?

Home gardens improve a camp environment as well as personal and social well-being. Obtaining

permission from camp authorities to grow between houses legitimised these activities and opened the door for further gardening projects. The Domiz LTT garden competition has been held annually since 2016 and has led to the development of hundreds of home gardens. The initiative has now spread to seven IDP and refugee camps, with over 1,500 entries.

In Domiz 1, a community of gardeners has been established who continue to tend their gardens year-round. This has led to a community garden being established, run and managed by residents. The community garden provides a safe space for women to grow food and flowers, to socialise with their families and to bake traditional bread in the community oven.

After nine years, houses have been constructed where tents were sited, with small plots of outside space allocated to each household. What was a temporary settlement is becoming an accidental city, with its own economy as houses are bought and sold and businesses are established to sustain the community's demand for food and goods.

"I grow because I love nature, nature is more important than anything, and can solve so many problems."


Planning green spaces at both individual shelter and neighbourhood level from the beginning of a camp's development, would lead to healthier refugee and IDP communities in the longer term. There is some way to go before this is a reality, but in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, LTT is making inroads and is now active in almost half the camps in the region. The Sphere standards recommend:

  • 4.5 square metres for each person in camp-type settlements, including household plots

  • 3 square metres for each person, including household plots, where communal services can be provided outside the planned settlement area

  • Minimum ratio between covered living space and plot size is 1:2; move as soon as possible to 1:3 or more.

Upholding these and pressing for the ideal ratio of 1:3 covered living space available per household leaves adequate space for gardens and allows the camp to develop into a liveable long-term environment.


The 2018 garden competitions introduced in Yazidi, Kurdish and Arabic camps, including some where people were still living in benders, are evidence that this approach is scalable and replicable in other areas. Even in new camps people enjoyed setting up gardens in order to enter competitions. In transit camps, usually seen as bleak and uninhabitable, people are growing plants - see these pictures from Moria on Lesvos and this report from the New Yorker.The innovation shown by people to grow in the smallest spaces, is evidence that gardening is ‘wanted’ not just ‘needed’ in communities of refugees.  This cross over, from necessity to pleasure, has the potential to galvanise communities of displaced people the world over. Gardening is well documented to improve mental and physical health and this is as true for people living in situations of forced migration as it is for people in permanent settlements.

The Lemon Tree Trust is open to approaches from other organisations who want to adopt its gardening initiatives in communities of forcibly displaced people across the world.


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