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Permaculture and Refugees Part 2

An Interview with Rosemary Morrow

In part 1 of this article series, I gave a brief overview of how permaculture as a design perspective can be used in situations of uncertainty such as refugee camps. I looked at how this is already being offered in a number of places and situations by groups such as Permaculture For Refugees (P4R) a key member of which is teacher and teacher-trainer Rosemary Morrow. In this part, I have had the honour to speak directly to Rosemary Morrow in person about her work with refugees, and I will share some of her insights in this field.


Changing how we see refugees

One key aspect of using permaculture in situations such as those experienced by refugees is its potential as a tool to help us alter our perception of what is going on, so that we can more easily provide solutions. In general, the idea of separating refugees from other people in society can be seen as one which is perhaps unhelpful; encouraging, as it does, the concept of land as something which can only be used if the people on it are officially designated as being able to use it, and people as only existing if they have a piece of paper which says that they do. If we are to grow a truly permanent culture such concepts will probably have to eventually fall by the wayside.

However, they do exist now, and while refugees and refugee camps are still in operation one way to encourage new ways of thinking is to change our perception to focus on empowerment. For example, P4R’s re-framing of refugee situations into “opportunities for refugees to regroup, rethink their futures, and form self-sufficient communities” [3].

We can also focus on resources that are already available in refugee camps and similar situations. For example, many refugee camps consist of people from one particular cultural group who are seeking refuge from persecution. This means that a resource which is often abundant is that of cultural ties and community. Traditional practices and rituals are often forgotten in modern society but in refugee camps, doing the same thing as their ancestors did is often the inhabitants’ only link to what they perhaps still think of as their homeland, even if they were born within the camp [4]. Recognising and respecting this wealth of culture and all that comes with it, such as particular education systems, can help with re-framing of refugee situations as having some positive aspects. I will explore more of the cultural and educational aspect of refugee camps in part 3 of this series.


How is permaculture useful in refugee contexts?

As Rosemary Morrow says in her book, ‘Earth User’s Guide to Teaching Permaculture’, “There are only two resources: land and people. Either of these can make or break communities.” [5]

In my interview with her this month, she pointed out that the main problem with refugees is uncertainty, which she says “has been really underestimated as a terrible, terrible human fear factor” [6].

So even if those living in refugee situations can somewhat re-frame their situation and see some value in it, the fact that they have no idea how long they will stay there, where their next meal will come from, or even what is happening just outside the perimeter of the camp can affect the inhabitants’ psychological well-being hugely.

Permaculture can help with this, as people can change the very situation which they are in right now for the better. P4R’s work includes the recognition of refugee status as transitory, as well as accepting that it is the present situation [3]. Morrow says it is also important in terms of attracting those living in refugee camps to learning permaculture in the first place to emphasise the fact that the skills learned on a permaculture course will be useful anywhere [6]. Therefore as well as enabling positive change within the camps themselves, permaculture can be a source of hope for the future.


Where permaculture for refugees works

Though Rosemary Morrow is currently working on the third edition of ‘The Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture’, her passion is permaculture for refugees in camps and settlements [6]. So far, she has personally taught eight Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs) in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Turkey, Greece, Iraq, Kashmir and other places [6]. She has also taught two courses for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Kabul [6]. Though other groups offer different kinds of holistic and empowerment tools, such as the Thai Freedom House [7], as I mentioned in part 1, P4R’s work seems to be unique in giving tools for holistic design. Rosemary Morrow has found that some groups are already offering gardens in refugee camps but she sees this as inappropriate because they do not design. As she put it,

“You can empower people to grow a tomato, but you can teach people to look critically at the world around them”

Rosemary Morrow: Ashwanden, C, 2019. Interview with Rosemary Morrow, 13/9/19

Key to the success of the courses is treating those within the camps as human beings. Rosemary Morrow says,

“People say refugees aren’t able to do… design” [6]; but in her experience this is not true. This makes sense, as design can be just as useful to refugees as to anyone else.

“I’ve done 10 courses now and at the end I’m sure those people can look around them and be able to say we can have an impact” Morrow concludes [6].


When is it appropriate to offer permaculture in camps?

Refugee camps are not usually designed to be places of particular comfort. Those living in such situations have probably undergone significant trauma and stress, of a physical, mental and emotional nature; and though the camps may offer some kind of ‘refuge’, the status of this refuge is far from fixed. Once they have come to the camps, those living there may find it difficult or impossible to leave; and conversely, anyone who is not a designated refugee who wishes to go into the camps also faces a lot of difficulty in gaining entry. As Rosemary Morrow says, there are some positive reasons for restricted entry; since “Criminals feed on people in distress” [6].

Taking all of these factors into account, we can see that offering permaculture to refugees is not something you can just go to a camp and start doing. Quite apart from the physical difficulty in getting in, if the people living in the camps do not know you, there is no trust. Therefore Rosemary Morrow recommends that anyone wishing to offer permaculture to refugees should not try to work in a refugee camp unless they are invited. Ideally, Rosemary Morrow says,

“I would be inclined to give a course to NGOs first …and then those staff who are committed to stay in the camps and settlements to then teach them permaculture”

Rosemary Morrow: Ashwanden, C, 2019. Interview with Rosemary Morrow, 13/9/19


Trust and balance

Photograph by Gaby Stein (pixabay)

This involves gaining the trust of those who are already known and somewhat trusted by those living inside the camps first, so that further rapport-building is made easier. Also, offering permaculture training to those living outside the camps but who are working with those inside means that the transition from practicing permaculture inside the camps to outside can be somewhat smoother than if those inside did not have the support of members of NGOs working with them.

It is also important to be sensitive to possible tensions within the group, whether this is from psychological trauma or from interpersonal conflicts. For Rosemary Morrow, it is important to start the whole course with acknowledgment of the suffering and dispossession which the participants have experienced and probably continue to experience [6]. Morrow says it is good to give personal attention to those in the group who seem to be struggling; but that “you can not let people take over your whole class with traumatic stories” [6] so a balance needs to be struck.

Perhaps it is often more appropriate than allowing people to tell their own stories to offer a space to honour their experiences in a more impersonal way. For example, during one course she offered to do a non-religious ceremony to mark the anniversary of a particular bombing event in the war. This ritual space can allow for the release and acknowledgement of emotions and the kindling of hope for the future. As Morrow put it, in such spaces, those on the course can “contemplate the horrors of war and the hope that it will end one day, with the help of permaculture.” [6]


But refugees can’t pay for permaculture?

Rosemary Morrow has made it a point to not take a salary from any courses she teaches, as she is “trying to live the third ethic of permaculture” [6]. People living in refugee camps are not usually allowed to work, so it is quite unlikely that they can pay for a course. Morrow and P4R apply for funding for all the courses they offer, from various group such as Quakers Australia [8]. Morrow uses the money to cover only the expenses, food and accommodation of herself and to pay for everything that is needed for the course [6]. Permaculture teachers reading this can decide how they personally wish to live this ethic, and everyone’s situation is different.


What’s next?

Next month, Rosemary Morrow plans to travel to the Phillipines to work with IDPs [6]. She is in the process of trying to form a South East Asia refugee support group, as well as working on P4R’s collation of data on how the situations of the people who have so far received courses are changing, hopefully for the better, in the months following their implementation [6]. She is also helping to develop a ‘permaculture in refugee’s language’ section of the P4R website (6). It is clear that she is completely dedicated to this work and her passion can serve as an inspiration for practitioners everywhere.



 [1] Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Refugees, part 1.’ Permaculture News, 25/8/19.

[2] Permaculture For Refugees, 2019. ‘About Us – Values and Mission’.

[3] P4R, 2019. ‘Project Overview’.

[4] Corey, E; Sawyer, A, 2018. ‘Like We Don’t Exist’. Available on Vimeo here:

[5] Morrow, R, 2014. The Earth User’s Guide to Teaching Permaculture. Permanent Publications: East Meon, UK.

[6] Ashwanden, C, 2019. Interview with Rosemary Morrow, 13/9/19.

[7] Thai Freedom House, 2019. ‘About Us’.

[8] Quakers Australia, 2019. ‘Being a Quaker’.

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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