In their own words: Young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon find their voice to reclaim media narratives and fight fake news
On October 9, 1981, Majed Abu Sharar, the esteemed Palestinian leader, writer, and journalist, was assassinated in his Rome hotel room by a bomb planted by an Israeli Mossad agent.
Today, Majed's inspiring legacy endures through the foundation that bears his name. The foundation is committed to fulfilling Majed's vision of empowering the Palestinian people and promoting his ideals.
Majed played a pivotal role in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), serving in various capacities, including as the head of the PLO Unified Media Department.
During the 1960s and 1970s, he was a prolific journalist, authoring short stories, books, and articles, as well as delivering numerous political speeches.
"I've always tried to show a different image of refugee camps. It's not all violence; we have human stories of success and survival"
The Majed Abu Sharar Media Foundation (MASFM) was founded in 2014 by Majed's children and their friends. The foundation's goal is to empower young Palestinians in the media industry, particularly those living in refugee camps and settlements in Lebanon.
Their primary focus is to give refugees the necessary resources and opportunities to share their experiences and stories.
"We decided to carry Majed's unfinished work in the media field and give Palestinians the desperate voice they need to shape stories away from media stereotypes," Samaa Abu Sharar, Majed's daughter and director of MASFM told The New Arab.
In 2013, the foundation conducted a study that highlighted the urgent need to change the narrative surrounding Palestinian refugees. The study suggested moving from stereotypes of helpless refugees to empowerment narratives.
As a result, the foundation chose to use media and its various channels as a means to amplify these stories. They conducted various workshops with volunteers and trainers from around the world. Additionally, they collaborated with international academic institutions.
To help refugees pursue a career in media, the foundation provided them with opportunities to learn news writing, photography, videography, and more. The hope was to prepare them for a media journey that may open doors to them that would otherwise remain closed.
The foundation's office is located in the cramped but colourful Mar Elias refugee camp in Lebanon. The office is shared with the Palestinian Aidoun Center for Refugees (CRR), and it's difficult to miss the posters, books, and newspapers that serve as constant reminders that the Palestinian cause perseveres. The narrow streets of the camp are filled with the smells of freshly cooked food and street vegetables.
Samaa and her colleague, Mahmoud Ghandour, who is the president of the board, explained to The New Arab that they only use the office when they have a project happening.
Currently, their primary concern is the funding challenges caused by budget cuts in Lebanon, amid the Ukrainian war and the declining international support that have diverted their attention away from helping refugees in Lebanon.
One of their affected projects was Shababeek, a digital platform launched in 2018 to highlight Palestinian voices and develop their media skills.
Mahmoud told The New Arab that financial support ceased after 2019 due to Lebanon's economic crisis and banking restrictions, with potential donors being locked out of their dollar accounts and the lira's value rapidly deteriorating.
However, the website's impact and mission remained unaffected despite the funding challenges.
A former reporter from the Shababeek project, Adnan Al Hamed, told The New Arab that trainers from different walks of life and levels of expertise educated the teams until they were well-prepared to provide news of all Palestinian refugee camps and, most importantly, communicate with people on the ground, which was Adnan's favourite part.
"Residents of the camps started to trust us and were looking forward to the content we were putting out online," the reporter said.
Adnan stated that the website presents on-the-ground insights from inside refugee camps, helping to dispel false information about them. Adnan established a network of contacts in the northern Beddawi and Naher El Bared camps to facilitate the verification of information and ensure its accuracy.
"We used to receive modest payments for transportation, but as the cost of living soared and funds vanished, team members had to fend for themselves and could no longer contribute as much," the former reporter noted.
Though the website is still operational, the foundation aims to modernise it, build a team of professionals, and provide better reporting equipment.
"We used our phones to write and capture the visual footage, but we hope to get funding for better and more advanced gear," Adnan said.
The foundation recently partnered with BADIL - Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights to provide training in story-telling. As a result, a book of short stories about women living in Palestinian camps in Lebanon was produced.
During the training, participants wrote short stories based on the real-life experiences of women in their camps. The experience left Rania Saadallah Al Kot, a photographer from Al Rashidiye camp in southern Lebanon, in awe of the stories of resilience and success within refugee camps, especially those of women, whose stories are often ignored.
"Short stories capture attention faster and help bring forward stories that would otherwise be unheard," Rania told The New Arab. "I've always tried to show a different image of refugee camps. It's not all violence; we have human stories of success and survival."
At the moment, the foundation is focusing on rebranding as well as raising funds for its future endeavours, such as the Voices podcast, which shares the struggles and triumphs of Palestinian refugees through English-narrated stories.
"We're modernising to reach a wider global audience and mobilize support for the Palestinian cause, especially among those abroad," Samaa explained.
Mahmoud stated that they are exploring various sustainable methods, such as advertisements, merchandise, and paid workshops, to support their cause in the long run.
In Lebanon, the situation of nearly 210,000 Palestinian refugees is dire, with limited access to basic necessities, high poverty levels, and ongoing violence. Recent clashes between Palestinian factions have displaced families from the Ain al-Hilwe camp in southern Lebanon, further exacerbating their situation.
Despite the challenging circumstances, MASMF's team remains committed to its mission. They are determined to empower Palestinian refugees to take control of their own narratives, and they will not let any obstacles get in their way.
"The energy and enthusiasm of our participants drive us forward. Despite its challenges, this mission is unstoppable," Samaa said.
Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut
Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHourany