Mental Health Gardens: UNRWA finds new ways to integrate wellness with stress relieving spaces for Palestine refugees in Syria

04 November 2021
Tariq walks through the UNRWA Neirab Camp Garden, Syria. © 2021 UNRWA Photo

UNRWA facilities have become a symbol of safety and peace for Palestine refugees in Syria. Survivors of more than ten years of conflict, Palestine refugees need stable, secure spaces where they can gather as a community, develop their hobbies and explore their creativity. Tariq al Shalabi is an UNRWA distribution worker in Neirab camp, nearby Aleppo, Syria. His commitment to Palestine refugees goes far beyond food distribution.  

Tariq wants everyone who comes to the distribution centre to leave with a   smile on their face and maybe even some garden grown herbs or a colourful flower.  Tariq created a garden near the UNRWA Neirab Distribution Centre as a place for Palestine refugees to gather while they wait for their food parcels. He maintains the green space throughout the year and has cultivated the small piece of land with love. In addition to pruning and maintaining the garden, Tariq cultivates it year around, making sure to plant seedlings throughout the year, guaranteeing fresh, colourful blooms and harvests in every season. The colourful evergreen display has been a popular addition, bringing joy to many.  The garden’s harvest is shared among community members, UNRWA staff and interested visitors to the distribution centre.  Palestine refugees coming to the centre to pick up their food parcels often stay and spend time in the garden. On their breaks, staff also gather with cups of tea, with fresh mint from the garden and the staff gather around it for a cup of tea with some fresh mint. UNRWA vocational training students, who also share the space, often use the garden as a colourful backdrop for their photos.

Ammar Abu Hemideh and Mahmoud Ali, tend to a garden in Neirab camp. © 2021 UNRWA Photo
Ammar Abu Hemideh and Mahmoud Ali, tend to a garden in Neirab camp. © 2021 UNRWA Photo


Like Tariq, Ammar Abu Hemideh and Mahmoud Ali, two UNRWA sanitation workers in Neirab camp, take care of the green areas in UNRWA schools. They use their spare time to make sure those precious spaces, as small or large as they may be, remain pruned and in bloom. They have observed that the plants and flowers bring relief to students and education staff, all of whom have survived several years of the conflict in Syria. UNRWA has recognized their hard work with letters of appreciation. “We are very grateful and proud of this,” Ammar said. “But our most precious recognition is to see children – our children from the camp – watching the little gardens, smelling the herbs and smiling at the flowers. It makes us happy to pass on the value of nature and environment, and to help providing a peaceful space where children can play and feel happy.”

The prevalence of adverse mental health and psychosocial issues are of increasing concern to Palestine refugees. In many UNRWA fields of operations, children and adults are exposed to violence, conflict and displacement. This is further complicated by a variety of external factors, including poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, oppression and exclusion. If not addressed, psychosocial distress can lead to mental illness, unhealthy and dangerous behaviour, substance abuse, low academic achievement.

The humanitarian work that UNRWA undertakes can be physically, emotionally and psychologically demanding. Moreover, assistance is increasingly being provided under insecure and life-threatening conditions, including the multiple rounds of conflict in Gaza, home demolitions in the occupied West Bank and the ongoing conflict in Syria. UNRWA have developed mental health and psychosocial activities including the development of life skills for children, individual and group counselling and guidance and public awareness and adult education on positive coping mechanisms. In addition, UNRWA aims to establish a system that will build the capacity of key staff to respond to individual MHPSS cases either directly – through focused, non-specialized interventions or coordinated internal referrals and/or through external referrals when required.