Dheisheh refugee camp youth archive life in colours on grey walls
Bethlehem - Refugee camps worldwide serve as a stark reminder of loss and longing. They are usually grey, cramped and dismal. Palestinian refugee camps are no different.
Shabby, drab concrete buildings are separated by narrow alleyways that lack basic infrastructure but are the main playgrounds for schoolchildren. The walls are generally long and dull.
In Dheisheh, a refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem — a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem — however, the grey walls have been turned into a splendid colourful archive of life, a symbol of resistance and sacrifice.
Malik Shaheen, 19-year-old from Dheisheh, had his days split between school, home and the surrounding streets. A rusted staircase was the favourite meeting place for Shaheen and his friends until December 2015. Israeli military forces killed him during a street protest. Now, an adjacent wall bears Shaheen’s portrait to honour his memory.
The painting of Shaheen attracted thousands of visitors. His name was spray-painted on almost every wall in the camp to preserve the memory of a youth whose life ended with a bullet.
Since 1967, Palestinians have used street art — mostly graffiti and murals — to defy Israeli military rule. The Israeli occupation denied the population the rights of freedom of expression and opinion.
Hafez Omar, a Palestinian researcher in art and politics, said refugee camps in general have been at the forefront in a long journey of struggle against the Israeli occupation.
Following Israel’s seizure of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, Palestinians were banned from engaging in politics. “They used graffiti to announce a general strike or spread an important message,” Omar said.
Israel censored newspapers and magazines and frequently suspended publications from being printed and distributed. However, Israel could not censor or destroy all the walls.
It was deemed as a patriotic and a courageous act when a masked Palestinian sprayed political messages because, once caught, jail time could be four years under the pretext of inciting the population against local authorities.
Even after the Israeli military withdrew from Dheisheh, the tradition continued and the camp has turned into a colourful archive of Palestinians’ aspirations, dreams, losses and hopes for a brighter future.
Ayid Arafeh, 33, is an artist from Dheisheh and one of thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who grew up reading and learning Palestine’s history while playing in the streets of the shantytown.
“My first drawing was a tree and a bird,” he said. “My schoolteacher asked my classmates and me to draw what we want and we all chose to paint nature maybe because this is what we longed to see in the camp.”
Arafeh is one of the most famous graffiti and mural artists in Dheisheh. Men, women and children rush to greet him in the camp. His name is clearly visible under some very remarkable murals in the camp.
“When Malik died, his friends approached me to draw a portrait for him on the wall where they used to spend most nights,” Arafeh said. “The staircase was known to be his place and it will continue to be.”
The faces of martyrs, leaders, poets and writers make up the biggest percentage of drawings on Dheisheh’s walls. To Palestinians in the camp, which is made up of displaced people from 46 Palestinian villages, the walls have become part of their collective memory.
Mohammad Salameh, 16, said the portraits, the messages and the memories on the camp’s walls are the way children came to know about the individuals who sacrificed their lives for the Palestinian cause.
“I lived in the streets and grew used to them. If I had lived in a home, I would have drawn on a paper but the street is where we grew up and the walls have become our paper,” he said.
When Salameh moved from Saudi Arabia with his family, he hated how the camp looked. “At first, I was disgusted by all these ‘writings’ but when I looked closer I came to know my country better,” he said.
Graffiti and murals in Dheisheh have evolved from being short political messages and temporary slogans to become an extension of the past, an act of resistance and survival and an affirmation that Palestinians have not lost hope.
Arafeh said: “I have written the names of our 46 villages and towns and I have drawn the faces of our martyrs. Despite how important this is, I aspire to see diversity and add more colours in the murals and graffiti.”
After he travelled abroad, Arafeh said he realised it is imperative to instil hope in the hearts of the camp’s children. He now tries to incorporate more colour into his murals and portraits. The change is evident. While martyrs were usually drawn in black and white with serious faces, they now have wide smiles and lively stares.
“Our aim is not to make the refugee camp beautiful or a permanent place, because this is not our home but we must advocate for life and hope in a better future,” Arafeh said.