We entered the Shatila refugee camp under the suspicious gaze of men smoking shisha on the side streets, the curious stare of youngsters repairing motorcycles and the expectant look of women dragging crying infants on dirty, muddy streets.
The overcrowded camp is home to tens of thousands of refugees crammed into a square-kilometer patch of land in the south of Beirut, Lebanon. Originally built for 3,000 Palestinian refugees in 1949, Shatila was already bursting at the seams before the latest influx of Palestinians and Syrians fleeing the war in Syria further swelled the camp's population – and the tensions between the different groups inhabiting it.
Germany's leading organization for international media development, Deutsche Welle Akademie (DW), asked us to assist a team of sixteen young Palestinians and Syrians. These young people were being trained by DW to become citizen journalists for Shatila. We were charged with helping them assess and identify the potential media needs of the camp’s youth and launch a media initiative that could help meet those needs.
We designed a four-day experiential workshop for these young, aspiring journalists, drawing on the empathy, collaboration and experimentation inherent to human-centered design. We mixed interactive group learning with intensive fieldwork to tackle this challenge: “What are Shatila’s young inhabitants’ struggles, hopes and desires, and how could media help address them?”
We discovered that, unemployed, traumatized and with very little education, four communities (Palestinians from Lebanon and those from Syria as well as Syrians who have fled Syria and Lebanese nationals) are segregated by walls of misunderstanding, rancor, distrust and fear of one another. They have few, if any opportunities for self-expression and lack inter-community communication channels.
Our work applying human-centered design to this challenge led to four points of learning:
- Take the time to understand the context of the project and the constraints at play. We had to keep in mind the real social tensions between the different communities in the camp, our limited time for fieldwork (two days) and the team’s inexperience in need finding (18-25 year-olds with a basic education). We also had to carefully frame a design challenge that both participants and the camp’s inhabitants could understand and accept. We also needed that time to adequately scope the fieldwork for our participants and give them the resources they needed for rapid information gathering. While it took a lot of time, we were grateful to have spent it in this way once we were further along.
- Weave in moments for participants to share their personal stories at different stages of the workshop. This allows them to reflect and acknowledge one another’s different backgrounds and their individual past and dreams for the future. This also gives participants a chance to develop trust, which reduces friction and encourages collaboration.
- Adapt human-centered design tools to fit participants’ needs. There’s no need to explain the process in detail or go through all five stages. We trained our young team members to empathize by teaching them to listen and to create connections with others without using the more technical terms we learned. We encouraged them to share their stories and then find similarities between their experiences and others’. We slowly pushed them to face people often perceived as ‘the other’.
- Always be on the lookout for changes in emotions, mood and energy levels. We improvised and iterated on the workshop content to accommodate and accompany the group dynamics changes that resulted as our participants’ learned and applied human-centered design.
Mariam is a Beirut-based journalist and innovation designer, and Attila is a Berlin-based journalist and media consultant. Both are alumnae of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. All photos were taken and provided by Mariam Semaan.