Autumn 1994 (2.3)
The Spirit ofJohnny Appleseed
UNHCR Gives Seeds to Refugees
by Kaiser Zaman
I can't remember parsley (kishnish) ever tasting so good as when an Azerbaijani refugee woman proudly offered me some from her vegetable plot in Yevlakh a few months ago. I was so excited I didn't even wash it. You see, I had been involved with distributing seeds to the refugees and it was thrilling to see that it was actually working.
Azerbaijan has an overwhelmingly large refugee population. In addition to more than a quarter million refugees who were forced to leave Armenia and Uzbekistan, there are an additional 650,000 Azerbaijanis who have been displaced from their own homes by Armenian forces which now occupy more than 20% of Azerbaijani territory.
Despite the significant amount of assistance - tents, blankets, kitchen sets, sleeping bags, and food - we have provided since we started working there in December 1992, the refugees can never escape their primary need for fresh food and their deep desire to return to their own land and homes. Our problem in the United Nations is that we don't have enough resources to provide food on a sustained basis nor can we help them go home until the war ends.
Perplexed, we finally decided to try to find a way to provide seeds and simple practical gardening tools, and enable them to supplement their own diets with fresh vegetables grown with their own hands and own efforts. Besides, we felt the process might make them feel more in control of their own lives.
Despite not having time to do even the basic research that any self-respecting agronomist would have insisted upon, we pushed ahead. There were many obstacles. The refugees had no land of their own. Nor would we have any way of providing further supervision and guidance once the project got started. But we were running against the clock; the main sowing season had already begun.
When we scoured the local market, we were able to find 2 1/2 tons of seeds from 15 different kinds of vegetables. We discovered cabbage, radish, tomato, spinach, melon, watermelon, eggplant, cucumber, pepper, onion, carrots, beets, dill, and parsley.
But when it came to gardening tools, we couldn't find any at all. Actually, this shouldn't have surprised us as Azerbaijan is used to large-scale collective farming. Undeterred, we headed for Turkey where we found exactly the right tools. But the bureaucratic formalities caught up with us. We knew that if we waited for the tools to arrive back in Azerbaijan, the sowing season would be over.
Again, we decided to proceed. And that's how this bureaucratic juggernaut with the hard-to-remember name (UNHCR) became a modern day, nimble-footed Johnny Appleseed. And just like its namesake who gained legendary fame by distributing thousands of apple seeds throughout Midwest America in the early 1800s, we started distributing seeds to more than 12,000 refugee families scattered throughout the countryside in Azerbaijan. The initiative was overwhelmingly welcomed by the people who mattered most-the farmers who had been pushed off their land.
It's true that when you move quickly, you may tumble; but on the other hand, if you wait to be sure you're going in the right direction, you may arrive too late. Not all the seeds got planted. Not all the seeds did well. Not every farmer had access to the right tools nor did all the plants receive sufficient water. But enough seeds did yield vegetables to confirm that our hunch had been right.
Since then, we have distributed another 1.5 tons of seeds. And the 11,500 sets of tools? They'll be here soon. Too late, perhaps, for this sowing season but not too late altogether. These same tools can be used to improve the surroundings in the camps and settlements where tens of thousands of displaced people live. Besides, there's always next season. We can only hope the war and occupation will be over and the farmers back home by then. Either way, they'll be useful.
No doubt, Johnny Appleseed would have approved.
Kaiser Zaman is head of United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Baku.
From Azerbaijan International (2.3) Autumn 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.