A small museum inside the chaotic Shatila Palestinian refugee camp chronicles decades of trauma and forced displacement.
Burj al-Shamali refugee camp, Lebanon – Amal Said and Mustapha Dakhloul expertly wind their way through the maze-like streets of Burj al-Shamali, squeezing through the refugee camp’s narrow alleyways past local children playing on the cracked pavement.
“This was one of the spots,” says Dakhloul, 18, looking out over the refugee camp after ascending a metal ladder to the rooftop of a residential building, past racks of drying clothes.
Despite their young age, Dakhloul and Said, 20, are making history in Burj al-Shamali: They have completed several weeks of aerial mapping using a low-cost digital camera and helium-filled balloon flying high above the camp.
With the photos, they hope to craft the first ever detailed map of Burj al-Shamali.
The project’s organisers – including another young participant from the camp, 19-year-old Firas Ismail – say it will also be the first locally made map of a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.
“I was very excited,” Said told Al Jazeera, noting that the group started out with around 10 participants, but shrunk to only three in the end. “It was very hard work.”
A bright red balloon was affixed to a light but sturdy string, and slowly raised to more than 200 metres above the camp. A camera was tied to the balloon, and it took between 3,000 and 5,000 images from each spot, Dakhloul said.
It was not always easy: Electricity wires hang precariously overhead in many areas of the camp, making raising the balloon impossible in some places. The narrow streets also posed a challenge, as the large balloon simply could not fit between the buildings.
Bored teenagers in the camp shot the balloon down once, while Lebanese security officials confiscated the camera’s memory card after the group drew their suspicion when flying the balloon just outside the borders of the camp.
Depending on the location, the team sent the balloon into the air from the ground or from rooftops. They chose the balloon because it was the cheapest option, and gave them a better chance to interact with camp residents along the way.
According to Said, the map aims to help residents to see where free space exists to build parks or play areas for children, or to plant vegetables or plants with medicinal purposes on rooftops.
“When people look at the map, they will see where the important areas are,” she said. “Every person who sees the map can also draw their own idea from it … about how we can benefit.”
Three kilometres east of Tyre, in southern Lebanon, Burj al-Shamali was built in 1948 to house Palestinian refugees from the Hawla and Tiberias areas of northern Palestine in tents. In 1955, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees began providing services to residents in the camp, who had gradually built concrete and tin structures.
Today, Burj al-Shamali is home to almost 25,000 Palestinian refugees.
Mahmoud al-Joumma, president of the camp’s branch of the youth support group, Beit Atfal Assumoud, said that children and camp residents had been running after the mapping group, curious because they had never seen balloon mapping before. “In the beginning, really, I didn’t believe it was possible,” Joumma told Al Jazeera about his own initial reaction to the project.
But he said that holding a physical map in their hands might help to change the fact that many residents in the camp do not fully understand the conditions in which they are living, and the challenges the community faces.
for the future, to give a future to [the youth].””]
“Some people know their home, here,” he said, “but they didn’t know exactly what they would find on the other side [of the camp], how life is on the other side.”
He explained that unemployment and poor educational opportunities are major concerns in Burj al-Shamali, but the project is a clear example of how solutions are possible.
“It’s just to encourage our youth,” Joumma said. “We understand our situation, our difficult conditions inside the camps, but we believe that even if there are difficulties, there is the possibility to [build] for the future, to give a future to [the youth].”
When it is finished, the map will mark services in Burj al-Shamali – health and dental clinics, schools, mosques, and local organisations – as well as important points on the main road, which makes a circular loop around the entire camp, Joumma said.
It will also include the demarcations of different neighbourhoods, which remain named after the villages in historic Palestine from where the refugees originally hailed. “Every region in the camp has a name … Here Hatoum, here Safouri, here Al-Naima, here Ez-Zouk,” he said.
The project is now in the final stage, and organisers are raising money to print the maps and distribute them among residents, government officials, human rights groups and humanitarian groups in Lebanon, among others.
They also hope to send the three Burj al-Shamali youth map-makers – Said, Dakhloul and Ismail – to the United States to meet US mapping experts and speak to groups about their experiences.
But according to Claudia Martinez Mansell, coordinator of the Greening Bourj al-Shamali project, their US visa applications were recently rejected on the basis that they could not prove sufficient ties to Lebanon.
Consular officials reportedly said this could be proven by showing marriage certificates, job contracts or property ownership certificates – “all impossible things to ask 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who are still at university”, Martinez Mansell said, noting that they would apply for the visas again.
“I have not given up,” Martinez Mansell said. “To me it is so important that they get the opportunities to learn and be recognised for their work, so that they can come back and carry out the work they are doing.”