Foam soils

Planting Seeds of Hope: Sheffield Uni Aids Syrian Refugees

The University of Sheffield is driving forward a scheme to help displaced Syrian refugees grow food using old mattresses, designed to reduce landfill waste as well as provide fresh food for refugees living in the Jordanian desert.

The University’s cause statement states that the initiative is “a unique project born out of innovative Sheffield science”, aimed at bringing some humanity and comfort to the 80,000 people forced to survive in Za’atari refugee camp due to the Syrian war. The goal to create sustainable ways for refugees is at the heart of the scheme, managed by soil scientist Dr Moaed Al Meselmani.

Scientists from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the university are working to turn materials into “foam soils” that in turn allow residents of the camp to grow vegetables and accessible food. Material is chopped up and mixed with nutrients before seeds are planted into the foam, acting as a foundation for the plant’s roots.

Foam soils
The programme allows displaced people to grow herbs and plants without using pesticides or excessive water. [Image: University of Sheffield, iNews].

By using 80 per cent less water than planting seeds with soil and not needing pesticides, the scheme is far more accessible and healthier for families in the camp.

The university states that the benefits are vast, from families being able to create and eat fresh, nutritious food to the immense mental health benefits

Advances in hydroponics make the scheme possible, with the team at Sheffield having researched and tested their techniques in laboratories for years prior to testing it in real terms. As the team and the refugees in Za’atari have proven, low-tech materials can recreate high-tech foams used in the laboratories.

sustainable plants
The method has been designed out of old mattresses. [Image: Uni of Sheffield].

The university states that the benefits are vast, from families being able to create and eat fresh, nutritious food to the immense mental health benefits. Refugees surviving in the desert are being given a chance to maintain cultural traditions around food. Most importantly, the scheme helps individuals to create a sense of purpose: for a community so disenfranchised, this is an opportunity to have some control and to provide for their families.

By allowing families to take control of this part of their lives and include their spouses, children and relatives in doing so, the scheme gives people a reprieve from the reality of living in a refugee camp which is a challenging and often harrowing experience.

Dr Moaed Al Meselmani from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures behind the project. [Image: University of Sheffield].

The University’s team has been able to train 1,000 refugees to use the system in the camp and hope to raise £250,000 to train another 2,000 refugees in other camps.  By training enough people that they have the tools to train others, the goal is that the ‘desert gardens’ become a success staple that can be used across the world in order to bring a little comfort and humanity back to the lives of the millions forced to flee war.

The scheme helps individuals to create a sense of purpose

Desert Garden Project Manager Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, a Syrian refugee and researcher, said: “When you’re forced to flee your home, it’s the simple things you miss – like a cup of fresh mint tea or showing your children how to plant a seed. This project connects people with home and gives them hope for the future.”

The ultimate goal is to raise £250,000 which will train and equip 3,000 individuals to make the scheme “self-sustaining” by 2023.

You can support the fundraiser here.

Written by
Xan Youles
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