Posts Tagged ‘Garden’

In a world that sometimes feels like it’s drowning in despair, Kara Tepe is where one can see hope planted one seed at a time.  Nestled amongst the residents who have fled their homes in search of a bright future for their children, grows a bright patch of optimism.  Blooming with the vegetables in the camp garden is fibrous symbolism, for even with tiny string beans sprouts a mammoth representation of kindness in its purest form.

It was late summer last year when the mayor’s office in Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, was approached with a pitch to make a garden in Kara Tepe to feed the residents.  Due to lack of space, the proposal was denied, but the idea had at least been planted.

Once the European Union Deal was passed on March 20, Kara Tepe’s status as a quick transit camp en route to mainland Europe began to change as borders closed, people stopped moving, and new challenges arose.  Greece continued to welcome the human flow dialed down to a drip-drop of people seeking a better life, even as some voices of discontent rose from Greek citizens.

It was at this point that the garden idea began to germinate.  There still wasn’t enough space for a vegetable yield capable of feeding all 800 residents of Kara Tepe, but something was better than nothing, and a more noble idea took root.

Humanitarian Support Agency core member, David Triboulot envisioned this as a way to give back to the Greek families on the island.  “You helped us so much, now it’s our turn to help you back,” he said of the monumental supports the municipality continues to offer even as triple digit boat arrivals have waned.  Everything grown goes directly to local impoverished families.


One of the several rows of tomatoes that will go to local families in need. 

David has spearheaded the garden project since its infancy and after getting approval on April 1 for a 25 sq.m plot of land, he became the official Horticulture Expert at Kara Tepe.  That title is not a made up one either such as when Pam from the Office tried to just call herself the office administrator and act out the role of what she thought someone with that position would do.

As it turns out, David is actually a horticulturist.  I had doubted the legitimacy of that title until two minutes into touring the garden with him where he pointed out countless complex diseases and insects invisible to the untrained eye, that were ruining some of his crops.


David points out an irregularity on a bean stalk in the Kara Tepe Garden.

The garden was originally started with the cooperative efforts of five camp residents from Afghanistan under the expert management and hyperactive work ethic of David.  Some of the green-thumbed residents had a background in agriculture and all seemed happy to help.  In a heat and grief stricken atmosphere where many struggle with a sense of purpose, the opportunity to do some work and give back, even if they didn’t get any of the vegetables themselves, was a welcomed one.


Perpetually friendly Fazel from Afghanistan drew the short straw to weed with a smile.

The hardest part in fact, was not in convincing all of these men to toil in the sun without enjoying the fruits [vegetables] of their labor, but in getting them to understand the local need.  In their silver-lined visions of Europe, no one could believe that there were families in Greece without enough to eat or enough money to buy fresh food.  That ultimate understanding produced the perfect mix of motivation which according to David is equal parts wanting to give back and wanting to work.

Teaming up with charitable organizations to find families, in conjunction with his own network developed over the past 21 years of living in Lesvos, David simply delivers vegetables when they are at exact peak ripeness to those most in need.  There’s no publicity, there’s no hitch.  Once the number of people in the family are verified, a fresh basket of earth’s goodness arrives at their door.


The first donation from the end of June. Special guest appearance by some wild onions.

Including the garden’s first harvest on June 29, the team at Kara Tepe has given it five good pluckings. So far, the lines of budding greenery have yielded 14919g of tomatoes, 15226g of eggplant, 1790g of peppers, a lot of beans, and an untold amount of other herbs.  The total haul has been distributed amongst ten local families with thirty-eight people receiving a solid supplement of healthy nutrients.

The garden is currently undergoing a planned expansion into several new plots residents will grow and eat from themselves.  But for now, they send the harvest off to strangers who they have never met.  Many empathize with those who are hungry and without the means to provide for themselves.

Men here come out from under the shade of blankets strung from their shelter units to squat in the dirt and pull weeds.  From the slow growing plants they have nurtured for months, they pull plump vegetables to give to others after they themselves have come from rows of neighbors and their own family incessantly complaining about the quality of food.  They plant vegetables they know they will never taste, fully embodying the famous Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”


Muhammad from Afghanistan poses with just a small selection of what he picked one day in August.

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In Arabic, the root word of Ramadan means intense heat, which is exactly the taste that Amina Ramadan likes the most.  I found this out in the most unfortunate of ways when I was working side by side with her in the garden of Kara Tepe.  She picked a perfectly ripe green chili pepper that was dangling from a plant she had just weeded around, and after taking a bite, passed to me and said “Here. Very good.”  I’ve learned so far that cultural norms dictate I accept most offerings out of politeness, which I immediately regretted as my eyes swelled with tears and I coughed like a first time smoker.  With fire rising from my tongue, I passed the pepper back to her and said the most obvious statement of the day: “Hot!”


Amina poses with David, facilitator of the Kara Tepe garden project.

I have worked side by side with Amina for more than a month now at the chai station that functions much like a water cooler of the western business world, only with much more importance.  People come here not just to fill up on the over-sugared hot batch beverage that wasps swirl around by the dozens, but to make meaningful connections.  They grab snacks of dates and crackers laid out for them on a table up front and talk about new camp policies, people who have left for Athens, news from back home.  They practice English with volunteers, teach us Arabic or Farsi, and ask questions about Europe.  Sometimes they just come for hugs or friendly smiles.

Nearby, there are benches where people can sit and charge cell phones using the four outlets running from an extension cord.  In the heat of the day, thin mattresses appear in the shade of the awning and people shuttle back and forth to the chai station to fill their cups with Amina’s brew.  Across from the chai station is a stack of pallets near the popular centers of operation for several NGOs.  Also in a shaded area, residents hang around the area waiting for a new pot to reach sweet perfection so they can pounce on the dark brown elixir and suck it down in its still boiling form.

Amina prepares each batch with pride, measuring out the right proportions of sugar and tea for each pot that she has whoever is available carry over to the propane stand from the faucet after filling.  A bunch of volunteers hang out in the gated area, but everyone knows Amina is in charge.  Whenever someone wants a new cup, they ask her.  Whenever someone has a question about anything in camp, they ask her, and rightfully so, because as the leader of the central point for camp communication, she knows everything.  Amina has the most humble personality you will ever encounter and even if she won’t wear the paper Burger King-esq crown I made her, she is still the Queen of Kara Tepe.


Queen Amina relaxes while being fanned by Eddie and I as Janos feeds her dates on one of many blistering days in Kara Tepe.

Her unfathomable journey from Aleppo, Syria to the Greek island of Lesvos has a storyline that falls far short of what your worst nightmares are made of.  Every week, I would hear bits and pieces from other volunteers who had formed a strong connection with her or had seen a BBC documentary she was featured in which I hadn’t yet forced myself to watch.  I couldn’t bear to ask her about her story after I saw a reporter interviewing her where she flipped through pictures of her husband and tried to hold back the tears she was too strong and proud to show.  Whatever the wound, I knew it was deep and I didn’t want to be the one to pick at it.

As a loud young male from America who tries to keep as much skin exposed to the breeze as possible, I didn’t know how to properly interact with a conservative elder female from Syria who stays covered from head to toe like most women here do, despite the heat.  Could I hug her like the girls do? Could just the two of us have a private in-depth conversation?  Language was not the issue, our interactions felt awkward because we both were constantly feeling out the cultural expectations of one another.

I would bring her candy once I saw she had a sweet tooth, and she would give me extra food once she saw I had a bottomless stomach.  Amina was always making salads for volunteers because at her core she is a caretaker.  Some days she would see us glossed over in sweat and famished and force her own food upon us pretending that she was not hungry or had just eaten something else.

Basil, another world class resident volunteer, her and I would spend hours in the tea station area with other young vested helpers, sharing laughs, stories and tea pouring responsibilities.  Kids would try to sneak into the tea station to play with volunteers telling them to leave to no avail.  Amina would say the same thing and they would instantly listen.  The same went for adults trying to skirt the known rules such as getting more chai than allowed.  She has a fair strictness to her that commands respect, but one that never counteracts her radiating love and kindness.

She often holds and cuddles an infant I like to call the miracle baby.  As Amina explained to me, this child made the crossing over the Aegean from Turkey when she was one month old.  There was a shipwreck somewhere between the coasts and the child was assumed dead as the other passengers struggled to stay afloat.  After a half hour of capsized refuge seekers treading and searching, they the miracle baby bobbing up and down on her back with the waves, a big smile on her face.  Amina is now a central part of the whole village that is raising this child.


Amina holds The Miracle Baby while Basil squats beside them.  [Photo shared with permission from parents]

Many afternoons had been spent sitting next to each other, exchanging short pleasantries during long periods of silence as she crocheted different pieces to give to friends’ babies or showcase at a local art show.  Amina and I shared the same space for weeks, yet still we felt distant.

But this day in the garden was different.  As I crouched down to take a picture, she enthusiastically approached me with a double fistful of tomatoes.  When I accidentally pulled up plants thinking they were weeds, she covered for me by hiding them deep into other piles of discarded pluckings.  She twisted random leaves off different plants and handed them to me to try, saying things like “Good for soup” or “Good for salad.” She seemed to know everything about this domain of greenery as new leaves kept appearing in my mouth with commentary like “In Syria, this very good.”

Amina is sharp and witty in all interactions even here as she picked up a small jagged-edged leaf that crunched too loudly when she bent it.  “David [garden organizer] wait too long, this no good now” she lambasted, noting that this beautiful tea herb was now a few days past its prime.  It was the first time we felt like real friends.

In the revolving door of a refugee camp where resident and volunteer goodbyes come more often than sunrises, many are hesitant to develop bonds they know might get packed down with soil before they have the chance to really bud.  Today after gardening, Amina spoon fed me a potent heap of Za’atar so I could taste the in-demand spice I thought I had purchased for several people, hopefully saving me from messing up again.  We full-belly laughed at both my obvious mistake and lip puckered face fighting to hold back a shot of the fine powder thyme-based blend.  I nodded my head to her, and her to me, silently acknowledging that through our cultural and gender hesitancies, we had in fact blossomed.

After getting back home from camp well past midnight, I woke up early the next morning I did what I had avoided doing since I got here.  I went to a cafe with wifi, watched the BBC piece she was featured in and tried to be as strong as she was in holding back the tears.  The video would be enough to make my eyes well-up if I was sitting on a couch one thousand miles removed from the situation, but now it had a whole different level of intensity.

After months of waiting in Kara Tepe, Amina has finally gotten her papers to travel to Athens and will make the journey in the last week of August.  I worry that she might be lost without a task to devote herself to and a team of volunteers to take care of.  I’m scared that she might miss the outpouring of love and respect from the triple digits of people that flock to drink her tea every single day, even in extreme heat and darkness.  The opportunity to move along on this next stage of her journey is a blessing a long time coming, but also comes with a loss.  I know how strong she is and I steadfastly believe she will rise above any hardship life throws her way.  After watching her story as told by the BBC, my mind can’t help but play on repeat the words of a famous Maya Angelou poem:

‘You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise’

‘Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise’

‘Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise’

‘I rise
I rise
I rise’


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