The humanitarian side of agronomy


FAO agronomist Jehad Al Meqdad stays in his Syrian homeland to support farmers

From an early age, Jehad al Meqdad wanted to be an agronomist and help farmers produce food. Since the crisis began in Syria, that dream is more important than ever. ©FAO/Hasan Bilal

19/08/2022

Millions of Syrians fled the country after the crisis started in 2011. Jehad Al Meqdad was tempted to join them.

“For a moment I thought of leaving Syria because of challenges during the crisis, but I couldn’t do it,” says Jehad, a 52-year-old who now works for FAO as an agronomist. “So, I took the decision to stay in Syria and work hard to build resilience for farmers to stay on their land and produce food. This is very important in my life.”

Originally from the southern governate of Daraa, Jehad has been an agronomist for almost three decades, working first for the Ministry of Agriculture, then for FAO for the last five years. He specializes in training smallholder farmers and female-headed households to use better agricultural techniques, teaching everything from how to select seeds to when to harvest crops.

“The farmers’ reactions touch my heart. Fiya is one of the farmers we met in the Daraa governate. I sensed her gratefulness for the support we provided,” Jehad says. “I am filled with happiness and encouragement to carry on assisting more people to access food.”

A life’s calling

“When I was a child, I dreamed of being an agronomist,” says Jehad whose family owns a farm in his hometown. The landscape turning green when plants grew fascinated him as a child.

“I was very happy when I attended the Faculty of Agriculture. I studied hard and I was very interested in this field. I graduated and made my dream real.”

With massive displacement of rural populations, Jehad’s role at FAO, training new farmers, is crucial to the sector and to the country’s food security. Left/top: ©FAO/Jaafar Merie Right/bottom: ©FAO/ Jaafar Merie

A different Syria

Eleven years in, the ongoing crisis has disrupted almost every aspect of life including farming, a primary source of food and livelihoods. Out of the country's population, 12 million people face high levels of acute food insecurity.

Dealing with the aftermath of the crisis forms a big part of the work done by Jehad and FAO colleagues in Syria.

“There has been a big need to support the smallholder farmers who lost their assets, who lost their source of money. They used to work in agriculture but now have no water to irrigate their crops, have no inputs to plant their crops, so they need a lot of support,” he says.

As an agronomist, this is the type of support Jehad provides.

His daily work includes advising farmers on growing crops, giving training on planting techniques, spreading best practices on soil management and establishing food processing units.

Supporting local smallholders with various types of production kits to produce crops and breed livestock is one of FAO’s central aims in the country. Helping communities make better and more sustainable use of natural resources, such as water, is another.

Training is central to all of this work, and Jehad and FAO’s other experts ensure that the returning rural population can continue to grow food and provide for themselves and their families.

“In the years of crisis, the number of experienced technicians as well as the number of farmers has been reduced. Many of them migrated outside Syria. Training and technical support is very much needed for the new farming generation in Syria,” he says.

Jehad helps students learn about seeds and taking care of plants as part of FAO’s school garden initiatives throughout the country. ©FAO/Hasan Bilal

Meaningful work

Jehad’s chosen vocation is meaningful for him because he can see that his work changes people’s lives.

One project that has brought Jehad particular satisfaction is FAO’s Education for All initiative that sets up gardens so primary school pupils can learn how to take care of plants. Students eat what they produce, although the main aim of the project is educational. Jehad was particularly impressed by the special-needs students who participated, and he worked closely with them to ensure they got the most out of the activity.

Another project involved working with widows of the crisis to raise their household incomes. It involved setting up processing units for their fruits, vegetables and milk. FAO supplied equipment, such as cookers, fridges and packaging machinery, and helped establish shops where the women can sell what they make, including pomegranate molasses, fig and apricot jams, fruit juices and dairy products. The unwavering motivation of the women was inspirational.

More but better

This work matters for more than just the farmers themselves because, as Jehad points out, a well-functioning agricultural sector is crucial for the entire population’s food security.

“We play a big role in helping them keep producing food for themselves, their children and other neighbourhoods and communities. It’s a very important part of FAO’s work,” he says.

When talking about the future, his plans are simple: to do more of the same but better.

“I’ll continue to search for the fastest and most effective way to help rural farmers regain their ability to produce food for themselves and their neighbours,” Jehad says.

Jehad believes in his country and its ability to turn things around. “My children wanted to leave the country. I tell them that we can be more resilient by staying to rebuild it,” he explains. “I believe my children, too, can make it in this country. I always support them to keep going. There’s always hope.”

On World Humanitarian Day, we support the affected people, who are always the first to respond to disasters, and the global community that backs them as they recover. These are the volunteers, professionals and crisis-affected people who deliver urgent food, water, health care, shelter, protection and much more. #ItTakesAVillage to support people in crisis.


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2. Zero hunger, 10. Reduced inequalities, 16. Peace justice and strong institutions