Last Updated: Friday, 08 December 2017, 11:58 GMT

Somali refugees and locals benefit from desert garden in Ethiopia

Publisher UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Publication Date 13 September 2012
Cite as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Somali refugees and locals benefit from desert garden in Ethiopia, 13 September 2012, available at: [accessed 11 December 2017]

Marco Lembo surveys the hundreds of hectares of land surrounding Heloweyen refugee camp. Watermelons, onions, leeks, tomatoes and peppers dot the horizon. Beyond the fields, in a shaded area next to the Ganale River, mango and romano bean seedlings are carefully watered.

Even as this arid region approaches its driest season, everything here appears to be green. "This is more than a garden," says Lembo, 43, who arrived to manage Heloweyen in eastern Ethiopia early this year. "This will be an affordable source of food for refugees and the host community alike."

UNHCR, working with its Ethiopian partner, Pastoralist Welfare Organization, will cultivate 400 hectares of vegetables on land provided by the host community. The land in Heloweyen camp is extremely fertile and was once used for a government-run farm.

The host community receives assistance from UNHCR, which enables it to

produce a supply of food in excess of its needs. The remainder is sold at a discount to refugees from Heloweyen, creating the basis for market exchange between the two communities. Future plans include participation of the refugee community to cultivate produce with the host community.

Most of the vegetables in the garden come from seedlings brought in from other areas of Ethiopia and suited to the arid conditions along the Somalia border. Once they arrive, they are cultivated in a special botanical garden along the banks of the Ganale. When they are strong enough, they are transferred to irrigated fields.

Many of those who were refugees were agro-pastoralists, coming from a part of Somalia where agriculture means everything. The planned project is not only an important food and livelihood source, but a way to build cooperation between the host community and refugees.

It is also one way to convince the host community of the benefits of taking in thousands of strangers from across a desolate border. "There is a realization that there are some benefits to hosting the refugees," said Lembo. "We don't want the refugee population to represent a burden, but instead to be an opportunity for everyone to improve their lives."

The Colombian has worked in a number of countries but never, he says, has he seen an oasis of green in the middle of the desert. "You enter Heloweyen and it is desert, but then you look and see aubergines, onions and carrots."

The experiment is what he was looking forward to. "I came here because this was an opportunity to work on one of the most important operations for UNHCR," said Lembo. "This is an emergency that is continuing, with 160,000 refugees arriving during a single year. But when we work hard we can see the impact of our work on a daily basis."

It can be tough working in Heloweyen, where different Somali sub-clans sometimes have differences and where more than 20 local and international aid groups are present as well as local, regional and national authorities. "It is a big family and it is a lot of work supporting the government's efforts to help people move in the right direction," Lembo said.

For Lembo, who arrived at this desert region after working in Latin America, this has also been a time of adaptation and change. There are security risks and natural hazards, including crocodiles, snakes and scorpions. And it gets hot: the temperature during the hot season can reach 47 degrees Celsius.

But Lembo is no stranger to difficulty. He has worked in the sub-Sarahan desert. He was robbed at gunpoint during UNHCR's response to the Kosovo conflict. He was close to car bomb explosion in Beirut in 2007.

He offers a simple explanation as to why he relishes the challenge of work. "You see people who really need the services that we provide. When I help and I know that I am making a difference in their lives, I wake up and think I am in a humanitarian action movie."

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