From Lines to Stories: New Visualizations of Syria’s Borders

The Syrian refugee crisis began in 2011 and continues today into its fifth year. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) calls the crisis the “biggest humanitarian crisis of our era” as over 250,000 people have perished and over 4.5 million individuals have fled across state borders throughout the region and farther abroad into Europe. Syria’s borders play a crucial role in the crisis, as they are the first state line that refugees must cross. They are also dynamic, constantly opening and closing due to geopolitical and security concerns. Within the Syrian state’s boundaries, other kinds of borders inhibit people’s mobility. Regime or rebel-controlled areas, for example, frequently prevent individual movement. The home and even the body can also be considered a border. The home is often the first and most difficult border to cross and the body is our closest most intimate border.

Western media has documented Syrian refugee border stories through riveting and gut-wrenching imagery, interviews, video, data visualization, and maps. Photographs, for example, of Syrians and their border stories have been published in places like the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Geographic. These images provide an immediate and emotive understanding of the “messiness” of borders and individualized border experiences.

A conventional cartographic representation of borders. Map by Meghan Kelly.

A conventional cartographic representation of borders. Map by Meghan Kelly.

By contrast, the maps in each previously mentioned article are comparatively limited and emotionless. Conventionally, cartographers and designers default to solid, black lines to symbolize borders, sometimes using dashes to show contentious spaces. Furthermore, experiences of borders, their variations, and many non-traditional borders are left off the page. As a result, borders often appear homogenous, static, unexperienced and sometimes invisible.

The goal of my Mapping Borders project is to examine border experiences and re-symbolize mapped borders in new ways. After interviewing seven Syrian refugees and humanitarian workers, I developed an alternative mapping technique which allows us to rethink and expand cartography’s visual variables—the design toolkit cartographers use to make maps. Here, I introduce my alternative technique and then apply the technique to the story of one Syrian refugee named Amal. Once you understand the techniques and their application to Amal’s story, you will be prepared to explore his and others’ border stories.

Mapping Techniques

  1. Each border story is presented as a series of maps. This sequencing paces you through each story and provides equal space for each individual border and experience.
  1. The border is the focus of each map layout. I developed a bivariate line symbolization scheme (Figures 1 and 2)—a mapping technique that uses two dimensions to show two varying attributes at the same time. Figures 1 and 2, for example, depict individual experience, which is presented along the x-axis, and the border’s porosity, which is presented along the y-axis. As experiences become greater or more traumatic the border line becomes thicker, reflecting the weight of a particular experience. As the border becomes more or less permeable, the border line becomes more or less gapped. The distance between each dash increases as the porosity of the border increases. Figure 1 shows the technique applied to a line and Figure 2 demonstrates how the symbolization plays out using the outline of Syria.
    Figure 1: Bivariate line symbolization scheme depicting the weight or significance of a border experience along the x-axis and the porosity of the border on the y-axis. By Meghan Kelly.

    Figure 1: Bivariate line symbolization scheme depicting the weight or significance of a border experience along the x-axis and the porosity of the border on the y-axis. By Meghan Kelly.

    Figure 2: The same bivariate line symbolization scheme applied to the Syrian border. By Meghan Kelly.

    Figure 2: The same bivariate line symbolization scheme applied to the Syrian border. By Meghan Kelly.

  1. I labeled each border with a passage taken from my interviews. Each passage encapsulates the individual’s experience or perspective. This labeling technique places the individual directly in the map.
  1. I separated my voice as the cartographer from the voice of the interviewee by using two separate typefaces, or fonts. My voice is always to the left of the dividing line (Figure 3) and the individual’s voice is always to the right of the dividing line. This emphasizes the individual’s voice, while simultaneously recognizing my voice as an outside perspective.
  1. Learning the layout of each map is critical to understanding each story. Figure 3 is numbered to walk you through the design. First, focus on the central map. The central map uses the bivariate symbolization scheme (Figures 1 and 2) to embed the realities of border experiences into the line. Second, use the locator map for geographic context. Next, note the individual telling his or her story and then identify the border type: traditional or non-traditional. Non-traditional borders, such as the home or body, that are typically invisible in cartography are depicted here using abstract squares. Last, reference my description to the left of the dividing line for context and listen to the individual’s voice to the right.
Figure 3: Schematic of map layout and design. Follow the numbering through each iteration in the map series. By Meghan Kelly.

Figure 3: Schematic of map layout and design. Follow the numbering through each iteration in the map series. By Meghan Kelly.

Amal’s Story

Amal is a physician, a husband, a father, and a Syrian. He taught at the Aleppo School of Medicine before the Syrian revolution began. Amal played an important role as a physician throughout the revolution, often working for one or both sides of the conflict. He fled Syria in 2013 and now resides in Turkey without his wife and daughter. Amal’s story centers on borders of varying types.

Amal’s Maps

The central map opening Amal’s map series (Figure 4) is blank, drawing your eye to the right panel. The locator map depicts Syria and highlights Aleppo, the city where Amal lived and worked as a physician. Below is Amal’s name. The name relates the forthcoming series of maps to Amal and his personal story. I briefly introduce Amal on the left side of the dividing hairline and Amal introduces himself to the right describing his life at the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

Figure 4: The first map in Amal’s series serves as an introduction to his story. I introduce Amal to the left of the dividing line and Amal introduces himself to the right of the dividing line. By Meghan Kelly.

Figure 4: The first map in Amal’s series serves as an introduction to his story. I introduce Amal to the left of the dividing line and Amal introduces himself to the right of the dividing line. By Meghan Kelly.

The next map (Figure 5) presents the first border discussed by Amal. Because this border is non-traditional, and I did not have its corresponding geographic location, it is represented by an abstract square outlined in the center of the layout. The border is placed in the middle of the page to draw your attention. Familiarity with the map key or bivariate line symbolization scheme (Figures 1 and 2) informs you that this abstract border is heavily experienced (symbolized with the thickness of the line) and rigid (symbolized with the solid line as opposed to a dashed line). The whitespace surrounding the border focuses your eye and illuminates the border as well as its label, “people did not trust hospitals.”

Figure 5: The second map in Amal’s series introduces the first border—the walls of the hospital—discussed in Amal’s story. By Meghan Kelly.

Figure 5: The second map in Amal’s series introduces the first border—the walls of the hospital—discussed in Amal’s story. By Meghan Kelly.

To fully understand this border, transition to the right panel for context and narration. The locator map shows the location of the border displayed in the central map. This border is located in Homs and is related to a hospital. You are reminded of Amal and his experiences with his name, which labels a point at the terminus of the dividing hairline. Next, you can identify the border as a hospital, written to the left across from the border symbol on the right. “Hospital” is italicized, reminding you that this border is a non-traditional border. Amal’s voice appears last, recalling this border and his experiences. Here, he describes his duty as a physician to help Syrians affected by the ongoing violence and notes the fear of those seeking medical attention in a government-run hospital. With the information provided in the right panel, the central map can be more easily interpreted and understood in the context of Amal’s story.

As you move on in Amal’s map sequence (Figure 6), notice how the border stays the same, while the border label and right panel change. Beginning with the central map, we see a thick solid borderline labeled this time with “she could not stop crying.” While the border symbolization is still the same, the experience written in the label is quite different. The locator map gives this border a relative location, Homs. From the text below, note that the border represents Amal’s home. His home is a non-traditional border (italicized in the right panel) lacking a defined location, hence the abstract square shape. His family—particularly his daughter—is fearful of the bombing happening outside the walls, or borders, of their home. The border remains strict and impermeable, but is heavily experienced. Again, Amal’s voice carries you through.

Figure 6: Amal's Home. By Meghan Kelly.

Figure 6: The third map in Amal’s series transitions to a new, more personal border: his home. By Meghan Kelly.

The fourth map (Figure 7) in the sequence presents a new shape, a border that is no longer an abstract square. Although irregular, this shape may be more familiar to you as it resembles an international boundary. The border is still thick and therefore experienced; however, the line is also dashed. The dashed line elicits permeability and movement, unlike the previous two maps. Again, the border’s label is unique to the border experience. This time it states, “my wife and daughter flee,” which calls to mind the forced separation between family members. Returning to the right panel, you can further understand the border’s geographical context given the locator map. The border is identified in regular style (not italicized) to denote the border as a traditional border representing Syria. Amal’s voice continues to describe this border and his wife and daughter’s passage through.

Figure 7: The fourth map in the series depicts a more recognizable shape: the border of Syria. This is the first traditional border discussed by Amal. By Meghan Kelly.

Figure 7: The fourth map in the series depicts a more recognizable shape: the border of Syria. This is the first traditional border discussed by Amal. By Meghan Kelly.

Amal’s story and experiences of borders continue through the remaining maps in the sequence. As you explore the rest of his story on your own, begin by examining the central map, its border symbolization, and its label. What kind of feeling do you get when looking at the thickness, arrangement, and label of the line? Next, refer to the right panel, begin with the locator map for reference and narration, and identify the border type. Is it traditional or non-traditional? Lastly, refer to my added narrative and Amal’s voice at the bottom of the panel. While my voice provides contextual information, what is Amal telling you? I hope his voice connects you to his story, his experiences, and the map.

Mapping Borders rethinks cartography’s visual variables and applies new symbolization to stories of Syrian border crossings. Amal, for example, is a Syrian, a husband, a father, and a physician who encounters various borders—hospitals, the walls of his home, the Syrian state border, as well as neighborhoods controlled by the Assad regimes and his body—in various ways. A thin black line on the map does not accurately reflect his many border experiences. With this project, I aim to create a new narrative mapping technique that highlights and emphasizes individual experiences and borders. It is my hope that this project nudges critical cartography forward and opens conversation across geography and other disciplines such as history, geopolitics, data journalism, digital humanities, and design.

Featured Image: An excerpt from the bivariate line symbolization scheme, developed by Meghan Kelly.

Meghan Kelly is a cartographer and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the department of Geography. Her research intersects cartography and human geography. She is specifically interested (at the moment) in critical cartography, borders, and mapping experience. Please visit her online portfolio, which includes the Mapping Borders project. Contact.

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