Desert Garden appeal

A unique project born out of innovative Sheffield science is giving families displaced by war the opportunity to grow fresh food in the desert using the most unlikely of materials – discarded mattresses, not soil.

Picture of Rehab Osman Khalifa, Community Services Officer at Zaatari camp
Rehab Osman Khalifa, Community Services Officer at Zaatari camp

Urgent appeal

The Desert Garden project is giving hope for families displaced by war. Can you help secure its future?

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Thank you so much for supporting the Desert Garden Appeal

Supporters have now given over £225,000 to aid thousands of Syrian refugees to grow their own fresh food in the desert. The project is on its way to being fully sustainable; ensuring this lifeline to families living in the camp can continue for as long as it needs to. However, we are still aiming to raise a further £25,000 to make the project fully sustainable, and help the residents of the camp prepare for the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19). 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have told us there are currently no known cases of Coronavirus in the camp, however the residents of Zaatari are in lockdown as a precaution. Your help in giving families access to their own gardens will make an even greater difference in these troubling and uncertain times. Seeing green plant life and caring for crops is a much-needed boost to the mental health of the people living in the Zaatari camp, and gives them a renewed sense of purpose.

Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, Desert Garden Project Manager, has told us that growing is still taking place and virtual support has been quickly set up to enable teams and groups to stay in touch via WhatsApp. The growing systems themselves have been unaffected by the changes and Moaed says they are “perfect and full of plants”.

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Improving lives in the harshest of circumstances

Forced to flee the war in Syria, there are currently 80,000 people living in Zaatari, the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp and now Jordan’s fourth largest city. More than half of the refugees are children. With war ongoing, there’s neither the possibility of returning home nor moving on. Families are in limbo. There’s little work and they are surviving on humanitarian aid. They are unable to grow food in the ground.

The University of Sheffield's unique Desert Garden project, is helping to change that. Amidst Jordan's arid landscape, there’s a tennis-court sized desert garden alive with plants being grown by refugees using foam, not soil.

The families involved in the project speak of benefits beyond having fresh food for the first time in years: Improving mental health and wellbeing, gaining new skills, maintaining important cultural and social traditions, finding a new sense of purpose and a feeling of empowerment. With many discarded mattresses being saved from landfill, there’s an important environmental impact too.

Picture of a man wearing a blue t-shirt in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

What your gift will support

  • £10 provides plants and nutrient solution for one family.

  • £25 buys enough fertiliser to grow 300 kilos of tomatoes.

  • £100 provides one family with a fully functioning hydroponic garden, including seeds, fertiliser and training.

  • £500 pays for seeds and fertiliser for 20 families for a year.

  • £1,000 enables 10 refugees to turn their desert garden into a sustainable business.

  • £5,000 provides seed and fertiliser for 200 families for 12 months.

  • £50,000 gives 600 families the training, equipment and materials needed to start their own desert gardens.

  • £250,000 trains and equips 3,000 more refugees to make the project self-sustaining within three years.

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Plants growing in Za'atari refugee camp using hydroponics
Discarded mattresses and waste pipework being used to grow plants in Za'atari refugee camp

Sheffield science making a difference

Scientists at the University of Sheffield are world-leading experts in hydroponics. Using highly advanced materials for commercial enterprise, they have been developing the technique at their lab in the city for many years.

Duncan Cameron, Professor of Plant and Soil Biology and Tony Ryan OBE, Professor of Physical Chemistry, joined the dots between this high-tech work with polyurethane foam in Sheffield and a pile of old mattresses in the Zaatari camp. They set out to see if this most low-tech of materials could mimic the high-tech foams they were using in the lab. Turns out they could.

Soon after, the innovative Desert Garden project began, with both humanitarian and sustainable aims at its core: Use waste materials to grow fresh food in the desert for people displaced by war. The project is being managed by Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, a Syrian refugee himself, and a soil scientist currently working at the University of Sheffield.

But without your support, the project won't be able to continue.

Learn more about the science behind the project

Dr Moaed Al Meselmani

To be able to help my fellow people, I think it’s a moral responsibility. As a scientist I should be doing something to help and support other people and it makes me very happy to be doing this in the camp. I am also very grateful to everyone in the camp who helps make this happen.

Dr Moaed Al Meselmani

Visiting researcher, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology

Creating a sustainable future

zaatari refugee camp

To date, over 650 of Zaatari's refugees have been trained in hydroponics. And they're sharing their new-found knowledge within their community. Within the next three years, this 'train the trainer' model will mean the camp's desert garden will become fully self-sustaining.

Importantly, advancing research into this exciting field has many possibilities beyond Zaatari too. Predictions estimate that there will soon be millions more refugees, not only as a result of conflict, but also climate change. With your support, the work taking place in Zaatari’s desert garden may unlock a sustainable solution to this most pressing of challenges.

The Desert Garden project is soon coming to an end. We need to raise £250,000 to secure its future.

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Prof Tony Ryan in the Jordanian desert as part of the Desert Garden project

The refugees have taken the training we’ve given them and made the project their own, growing things we never thought would be possible in the desert environment using recycled materials. It's having an enormous impact on our research back in Sheffield.

Professor Tony Ryan

Professor of Physical Chemistry and Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures

Research from this project was presented at the Institute for Sustainable Food's Planet to Plate Festival.

Tony Ryan and Moaed Al Meselmani discuss the award-winning Desert Garden project that has used recycled mattresses and hydroponics to grow food in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

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