By Jane E. Dritchta:
I love a lot of things, and gardens are one of them. I’m not a huge gardener myself, as I live in a 700-square-foot condominium when I’m in the States, but even in that limited space, I have room for a herd of African violets. I love them almost as much as I love my husband, and he is an excellent violet babysitter.
I just love gardens. In Iraq, my Clinical Director, Lara, and I watched far too many gardening shows, actually. Our other housemates wouldn’t even come in the lounge as they knew they would have to endure British gardener extraordinaire Monty Don, or even (gasp) a bit of Alan Titchmarsh.
It was just too much to resist. Gardeners impose order on the unorderable. They corral the natural world, and even in the most relaxed cottage garden, exercise their will about which plants stay, which go, which get moved. It's not too much of a stretch to say that our lives were profoundly out of control, so we embraced this framework, this ability to have a say in one’s environment.
It was so outside our frame of reference that we dove deep into Italian gardens, French gardens, Spanish Moorish gardens—nothing was too esoteric or too mundane for us. We argued between us as to the virtues of different varieties of rosemary and what we thought could grow here. We discussed our grandparents’ gardens, their allotments in wartime Britain, and how our English heritage played out so strongly that we were in Iraq, of all places, discussing drainage issues in Yorkshire.
And, of course, we knew we weren’t the only ones.
The Yezidi are gardeners and farmers by nature. They have tilled the soil in this region for millennia, back beyond recorded history. Their lives are reflected in the growing of things, marking time by the seasons in a society where education is still regarded as a luxury at best and suspicious at worst. The Yezidi, especially the women, are true children of the soil, and now they were here, in this internally displaced persons camp, cut off from growing things.
We had several women, women who had suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of ISIS, mention in therapy that they wished they had a garden. While Camp management did not prohibit gardens per se, they take money, as any gardener will tell you. And money, well, that’s something that is in short supply in a Yezidi IDP camp. The camps are made of dust in the summer and mud in the winter. To carve out a bit of growing space, to be able to fortify it and protect it, well, it is difficult.
But goodness how I wanted it for them. I wanted them to be able to touch the earth, to be able to put down roots, even if just in the form of shallow seedlings. I wanted them to feel a part of this land, the way they had felt in Shingal before ISIS came, solid, sturdy, immutable. And all I could do was watch gardening shows.
Fresh, beautiful soil being delivered
But wait! There is a happy ending here. As luck (or the universe at work) would have it, I received a random email from a friend and colleague, someone who had come and met our beneficiaries. In the way that these things often work, she had a contact at a granting organization who was interested in giving some money for environmental purposes. Now, we at Global Motherhood Initiative are interested in mothers and babies, and if that isn’t the best environmental cause, I don’t know what is. And the Free Yezidi Foundation, where I was working my paying job, was extremely interested in empowering Yezidi women. There had to be a way to make this work.
For gardening wasn’t just making pretty flowers grow in the desert for the Yezidi, and it wasn’t even creating much needed food. It was cultural preservation, the handing down of techniques and wisdom to the next generation, the generation whose lives had been torn apart that day in August 2014 when ISIS arrived in Shingal. It was mothers and daughters working side by side, working the earth, working for their family. It was creating something out of nothing, which has always been the Yezidi way.
It had to work.
And in the way of these things, it did. We gratefully received a large enough grant to create a Cultural Heritage garden. We hired Yezidi women who were expert gardeners, who could advise us on seed and plant purchases. We then gave them a somewhat ragtag group of women, all of whom were struggling so hard economically, even to the point of severe food insecurity. The women organized themselves into teams, older women working with younger women, passing on the tricks of the trade that came so naturally. They were paid a stipend and were entitled to all the foodstuffs they grew.