Syrian refugee turns Wellington state house yard into fruitful garden
Out the back of a state house in Lower Hutt, Syrian refugee Khaled Al Jouja is busy planting olive trees, artichokes and roses.
Al Jouja, a market gardener in his home country, arrived in Wellington with wife Aisha Kobbaji and their three children three months ago, after fleeing Syria four long years ago.
Now, he is rebuilding his life from the ground up, putting his gardening skills to use to transform the enormous front and back yards of his Housing NZ home into a fruitful garden to feed the community.
Al Jouja and his family are from Homs, Syria's third largest city, and a key battleground in the Syrian civil war.
There, where once he grew a grove of 600 olive trees, an orchard of apples, and sold fruit and vegetables, the land is now presumed flattened, he says.
"Everything is gone, all from war," he says, pulling out a phone to show recent video of Homs on the screen: it's an aerial view of destruction, a city turned to rubble.
Despite the painful memories, in his garden Al Jouja becomes animated. He shows where he has been digging every day to turn over the soil, where the seeds will be sown, how he will plant thousands of trees from cuttings: lemons and olives, cabbages, broccoli, and a garden of roses.
Within three months, he will be able to eat food grown in his yard.
But it's been a long road to this new fertile ground. After crossing into Lebanon in 2011, they spent four years in limbo, working odd jobs as they waited for their refugee status to be confirmed.
In a speech he made in Auckland when he arrived in January, Al Jouja told of how most of their relatives who remained behind, including his wife's parents, were killed.
The family are incredibly happy to be in New Zealand, he says through translator Mona Yahy, a Syrian refugee who has been here for a year.
"Many people helped us," he says, adding: "We came to New Zealand for working, we love working."
Al Jouja's garden has been helped along the way by Common Unity Project, a community group that started out working with Epuni School to create a large community garden to feed the children.
Founder Julia Milne said the garden would not only provide food for Al Jouja and his family, but she saw him growing to be a community leader for the Syrian community, inspiring and helping them to do similar things.
For Al Jouja, working to create the garden could be healing.
"It's a need to be growing, getting his hands back in the dirt, because they've been through an awful lot and agriculture is Khaled's gift and his happy place," she said.
He had already been offered a gardening job, but needed to save for a car before he could start.
Through Milne's networks and generous donations, she has provided Al Jouja with wood for planter boxes, plants and seeds, old irrigation piping that he is using to build a greenhouse, and compost.
Compost was a new concept for the seasoned gardener. "So the compost came along and it has been a matter of explaining and teaching Khaled why we use compost in New Zealand, because they don't in Syria."
Housing New Zealand area manager Stephen Wilson said the agency was "really happy" to have been able to provide a home for Al Jouja and his family.
"We're always very supportive of tenants creating fruit and vegetable gardens.
"We understand Khaled was a market gardener back in his home country – and he's clearly putting those skills to good use here. The size of the garden he's creating is definitely bigger in scope than what we are used to seeing, but we're fully supportive and wish him all the best."