The desert gardener

14 October 2009

Bassim Mohamad, a Palestinian agricultural science professor from Baghdad University, lives in al Tanf refugee camp. He talks about his life, the art of survival in the desert and why gardening there is so important.

You were a professor at Baghdad University. Why did you flee Iraq?

I am a Palestinian born in Baghdad in 1960. I lived and studied in Baghdad and lived and worked my whole life there. I studied agricultural science at Baghdad University and got married in 1985. We have two sons.

I was forced to leave Baghdad in 2006, three years after the war started. We came to Damascus, stayed for two years and then moved to al Tanf. Militias in Iraq killed my brother, so we decided to come to Syria. In the year 2006 many Palestinians were killed, everyone was afraid and tried to leave the country. My brother, friends and others were killed. My father died shortly after our arrival in Damascus.

How was life for you in Baghdad before the war?

We did not have any problems before the war. My father started his business in 1960, a French bread bakery. We had houses, cars, everything we needed. After the war everything vanished and we still don’t understand what and why it happened. Especially for Palestinians in Iraq the situation was the hardest. There were threats everywhere, many were killed and tortured.

You stayed in Damascus for almost two years…

I still have family members in Damascus. My uncles and cousins have been living there for a long time, so we could stay with them. In 2008 I came to al Tanf because I ran out of money and now no money is left at all. I worked for six months in a bakery in Damascus, but the salary was very low compared to Baghdad‘s salaries.

Then you came to no-man‘s land, al Tanf…

My wife, my youngest son and I arrived almost one year ago. What we need now is a new future for our children, our work and our life. We need peace and hope to be resettled.

What is the biggest hardship in the desert camp for you?

Incredibly hot weather, bad conditions, little water. There is little electricity, no work. Also, there are snakes, insects, mice, and diseases, particularly skin disease caused by the sun. Especially for children it is very hard here.

Can you imagine going back to Iraq in the future?

No, I would never go back. They killed my brother, which is still a big problem for me. My father died because of his grief in Damascus. My brother was killed only for being Palestinian.

What’s your daily routine here?

Our life here works like this: I get up around six in the morning, go outside and check outside the tents for snakes, insects or potential fire. I come back home, have my breakfast around seven. I go to my culture and check out my plants.

Then I visit other areas in al Tanf camp and check on insects and other problems. Everyone is still sleeping at that time. I do some work on the water tanks to refill the tanks for each tent. Around 12 I have my lunch and take a little nap. In the afternoon I usually organise a volleyball match. We have our own team and normally we play around six in the evening.

Your desert garden: what is the idea behind it?

I started this project because I’m a specialist in agricultural issues. I am doing a study on how certain plants grow in the tough desert environment regarding diseases, insects etc. I record every single detail: temperature and weather in order to study these conditions.

But July and August are hard for gardening. There is little water, the culture is weak, and only a few vegetables grow. I used seeds brought to me from Damascus. At the moment we have beans, corns and flour, which we use for cooking. Later on we will have spinach, potatoes and much more. We depend on them since vegetables are hardly available in the camp. We have rabbits and birds as well, all of them found in the desert. We depend on our self-grown food.

Baghdad, Damascus, al Tanf: Your life had been hard in the past. What are your dreams for the future?

Everything is better than living here.

What do you miss the most from Baghdad?

All my friends, my neighbourhood, everything. I lived in an area of the city called "new Baghdad", not in a refugee camp. I did not have any financial problems. My whole life from 1960 until after the war was in Baghdad. Of course the war changed everything, militias came, killings and many other things started. But we still hope for a better future one day.

Interview: Eva Pilipp


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