Khaldeya Soboh first learned about the urban garden project in Gaza when she saw her neighbor’s garden filled with vegetables. Although she had a bit of land near her home for years, it sat idle. That’s when she began peppering them with questions, “Who runs the project? Where can I enroll? Is there training?”
Khaldeya lives in the Gaza Strip about a 10-minute drive from Gaza City. She is a mother ofseven. Her husband, who beamed with pride when Khaldeya spoke of her home garden, has been unemployed for years; first losing his job in Israel after the blockade was imposed, and then due to a back problem. A couple of years ago, after learning more from her neighbors, Khaldeya joined the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees’ (PARC) urban agriculture project, which is supported by Grassroots International – PARC is a Grassroots partner. She admits, “It wasn’t easy to start.” But from what she told us, it’s obvious her efforts have reaped great benefits for her and her family.
I met Khaldeya during Grassroots’ recent site visit to Gaza. We saw Khaldeya’s garden at its least-colorful time, when the seeds had just been sowed, and no seedlings had yet popped out of the soil. It’s a medium size plot, with a smaller strip where she experiments a bit with new vegetables. As she invited us into the garden, I noticed a chicken coop towards the back between the two areas. These chickens were surprisingly well behaved, clucking occasionally, but for the most part silent.
As Khaldeya showed us around, her family quickly joined her. When she pointed to the areas in the light brown soil where she grows onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, and herbs I tried to imagine a verdant field. Khaldeya continued with the tour speaking proudly of the bounty her small home garden produces. As we wrapped up, one of her son’s leaned out of a window, his hands full of pretty yellow onions. Turning around to Khaldeya I saw a big smile slowly spreading across her face, she too had her arms filled with onions, and yes, they were from her garden.
Discussing the benefits of her home garden, Khaldeya explained: “Before, each week I had to buy vegetables from the market. My husband has been unemployed for years. Sometimes we don’t have money to buy vegetables. Now that I cultivate my own garden, I don’t have to go to the market. I get fresh vegetables from right outside my kitchen.”
Khaldeya also mentioned that her garden has brought her family closer—they work the garden together. Her eldest son in particular has fallen in love with it; he has already introduced grapes to the garden. Whenever he sees new vegetable varieties, he brings them home to his mother to try out.
And her family is not the only one that benefits either. “Instead of letting our vegetables spoil, I share them with my neighbors, especially those in need” she said. After meeting the needs of her family and neighbors, she sells any leftovers in the market, which is great because the only income for the family is what her eldest son, who is a farm worker, brings to support the family. Every bit helps.
About half way through the visit, Khaldeya became comfortable enough to share with us her family’s experience during Operation Cast Lead. With her youngest, a girl, sitting on her lap, she recalled how Israeli troops stormed into her yard while pointing to where they entered, about two meters from where we sat. Her neighbor’s home, a few inches away, is riddled with quarter-sized holes from intense shelling – It’s still standing, but uninhabitable. Her own home fared worse and was reduced to rubble. When the soldiers came, Khaldeya and her husband and children fled with only the clothes on their backs to her parents’ home.
Once things settled a bit, she returned to assess the damage and collect her belongings, especially clothing for the children. At the time her youngest child was a four year old son for whom she found a shirt. She took off what he had on, and replaced it with what she found.
As soon as the shirt touched the toddler’s skin, Khaldeya told us, “He began complaining of a burning sensation, as if his skin was on fire. I quickly removed the shirt and saw burn welts wherever the shirt had touched his skin. I didn’t understand what was happening, but when I looked closely at the shirt I noticed it had a white residue. It’s only later I learned the white residue was white phosphorous. Here I was happy that I could salvage a few pieces of clothing for my children from our destroyed home, and it was contaminated. It didn’t cross my mind that our clothes would be dangerous. Thankfully, he received treatment; you can hardly see the scars now.”
After this incident Khaldeya returned to her parents’ home where she stayed for a few months before returning with her family to the remains of what was once her house. Even now, nearly four years later, her home is only partly rehabilitated. Even though another international aid organization helped rebuild her house, it could not be completed for lack of building materials. From where I sat, I wondered whether it was really habitable.
Gaza has been under an Israeli imposed siege since 2007, which restricts the flow of people, goods, and materials, including building materials. The combination of the siege, the buffer zone that consumes farm land and fishing waters, and the periodic Israeli firing, especially in those areas of Gaza, makes life there extremely difficult.
As I left Khaldeya, I hoped that I would never forget her warmth, her generosity, and the hope she has for her children. She too wants her children to have a better life than she had and to inherit a just, more peaceful world. But for now, she’s content to at least be able to feed them from what she produces in her garden.