I was in Gaza covering the plight of Palestinians living in the tiny enclave, when on a trip around Gaza City I started to notice a few patches of green on top of buildings.
It caught my eye because greenery is rare in Gaza – a tiny strip of land that is home to nearly two million people, almost all refugees, and where poverty is rife and escape impossible due to a powerful Israeli military that controls land, sea, and air.
With a Palestinian friend (my Arabic skills aren’t great!), we decided to investigate.
What we found was a perfect example of Palestinian Gazan innovation.
The Gaza Strip is regarded by many as the most densely populated area of the world, and therefore with barely any room on the ground families were creating gardens in the sky, effectively using their rooftops as mini farms to produce fruit and vegetables.
But it wasn’t just an innovative way to produce food in the impoverished strip. When I started asking families about their decision to turn their rooftop into a garden, they made clear it wasn’t just as a source of food. It was also a source of escape.
These gardens were an opportunity for families to create something of their own, to have a little control and some green space and be responsible for something positive in their lives. Simple pleasures, maybe, but ones that Gazans are denied every day by living under Israeli occupation.
And these gardens really seemed like little worlds of their own. Standing several floors up, with rows of vegetable patches surrounding us, and well-tended fruit trees growing strong and proud towards the sun, a space was created which could be anywhere in the world. A space that wasn’t Gaza.
One Palestinian rooftop gardener explained to me that when memories of past Israeli bombings and family members that had been killed came flooding back to him, he would often make his way up to the rooftop garden. It was an escape from Gaza’s horrendous reality, a place to work on something he was proud of, that provided food for his family, but also a place he could come to if he wanted to reflect quietly on past events.
In many ways these gardens were directly helping the mental health of their owners.
Unfortunately mental health remains a taboo in Gaza, with many people seeing an admission of mental health issues as weakness – something that is completely untrue of course. The reality, is that it takes courage to admit you’re struggling.
And people in Gaza are struggling. In every building and down every street mental health issues exist in abundance. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and countless others.
If anything Gaza has become a breeding ground for them, and it’s no surprise.
There’s little hope for a better future here, and there’s a very real, and genuine threat of war every few years. And of course there’s the regular bombings that are carried out by Israel regardless of whether there’s an escalation in conflict between the Palestinian factions (such as Hamas) and the Israeli military. “Targeted” bombings, the Israeli military calls them, but in an overcrowded and densely packed open-air prison like Gaza, it’s almost impossible to not cause direct harm to anything and anyone in and around whatever the perceived “target” may be.
Yet while rooftop gardens are a potential path to helping mental health in Gaza, they are, of course, not a cure for it. An end of occupation, and allowing Palestinians to have their freedom and control of their lives, would be the first step in healing the scars of mental health in Gaza.
But the rooftop gardens do seem to be creating a space where people who have suffered horrendous personal tragedy can escape – at least for a little while – from their lived realities, and work on something that is productive and that takes care and attention, and essentially is something they can be proud of.
That can only be a positive, and that’s why Gaza’s rooftop gardens should be fostered and encouraged in anyway that they can.