Refugees Survive on Aid and Apps


A refugee talks on a cell phone on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on an inflatable dinghy. Thomas Campean /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A refugee talks on a cell phone on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on an inflatable dinghy. Thomas Campean /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Imagine, if you can, that you woke up tomorrow in a war zone. Your government is clashing with well-armed rebels, and both sides are ravaging your city with aerial bomb raids, mortar attacks and even random killing in the streets. You and your family need to leave. On foot. Now. What would you take with you?

Clothing, canned food, water, a tent, cash, passports and — your cell phone!

 As tens of thousands of Syrian refugees seek asylum in the European Union, some politicians and news commentators are surprised — and even angered — to see images of refugees washing up on Europe's rocky shores clutching smartphones.

How can Syrian refugees, who are supposed to be desperate, starving and homeless, afford to carry around a $300 Samsung Galaxy? Short answer: because they need it to survive.

Most of us depend on our cell phones every single day to text and email friends, family and colleagues; to receive real-time news and updates; to provide GPS directions; to record and share photos and videos; and yes, to even make an occasional phone call.

Migrants recharge their phones in front of Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary.
Migrants recharge their phones in front of Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary.
Beata Zawrzel/Demotix/Corbis

That's exactly how Syrian refugees use their cell phones, except in their case, a dead battery could mean the difference between a new life in Europe and deportation back to certain death.

Information Is Life

If you've been following the refugee crisis in Europe, you know how quickly the political winds can shift. Refugees trying to board a train to Germany are sold tickets one day, then detained the next. With a cell phone, refugees have access to the latest breaking news — not only from media outlets, but from fellow migrants.

Syrian refugees, fleeing a regime that's notorious for spreading misinformation, are particularly wary of “official” news. Instead they rely on firsthand reports on Facebook and Twitter.

As one Syrian refugee told journalism professor Melissa Wall, holding up his cell phone, “I trust only this 100 percent.”

Wall, who interviewed Syrian refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, says that displaced migrants suffer from information precarity — “a condition of information instability and insecurity that may result in heightened exposure to violence.”

More Than Memory Cards

For refugees, many of whom left behind close family and friends, their cell phones are their only connection to loved ones. They rely on Facebook and WhatsApp for anxious updates on births, hospitalizations, weddings and funerals.

In "District Zero," a documentary about life in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, the filmmakers follow Maamun, a shop owner who provides a critical service — recovering memory from dead cell phones. Maamun cracks open his clients' phones and extracts their memory chips, retrieving cherished home movies and audio recordings from damaged devices. 

Pablo Iraburu, one of the directors of “District Zero,” says that life in Zaatari is like a prison, with each day a bleak repetition of the day before.

“The cell phone is the only way of having a connection with the outside world,” Iraburu explains in a phone interview. “The phone is also where your identity is stored — pictures, Facebook posts, videos of your happy past. Inside the phone, you carry all of those personal memories.”  

In the documentary, Maamun's friend Karim offers to print out large color photos from the recovered files, smiling scenes of family life before the war, of individuals much like you and I who have been stripped of their identity by political turmoil, violence and displacement.

“They feel like they're invisible,” says Iraburu, “that the world is not looking at them. When you give them the opportunity to print and touch a picture, they can say, ‘I exist. I'm here. I'm still alive."

DIY Smuggling

Refugees are telling harrowing stories of beatings, ransom and robbery at the hands of smugglers paid large sums to provide protection and safe passage into Europe. Rather than putting their fates in the hands of human traffickers, more Syrian migrants are smuggling themselves using up-to-the-minute information posted online.

“Without the GPS, we would have died in Bulgaria,” one refugee told a reporter from PRI's "The World" after he and his family were abandoned by smugglers along the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

The man found a step-by-step instructional video online that highlighted a safe route across the border, including GPS coordinates and a Google Map. Secret routes like these can even “go viral” as more and more migrants use them to make it safely to the other side. 

With Crisis, a New Industry

“Every time I go to a new country, I buy a SIM card and activate the Internet and download the map to locate myself,” Osama Aljasem, a 32-year-old Syrian music teacher told The New York Times.

Aljasem isn't alone. There's a nascent industry of enterprising shopkeepers and telephone companies scrambling to serve the technological needs of refugees, many of whom are middle-class Syrians who can afford hotel rooms and SIM cards.

The New York Times reported that some cell phone providers in Greece were in a price war over SIM cards, sending salespeople to crowded ports to hock discounted SIM cards. One offer by Greek vendors of Vodaphone even included 50 percent off ferry tickets to Athens, the next stop for most migrants.

Not everyone is looking to make money off of migrants. Aid workers with the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights in Serbia provide free Wi-Fi for refugees in addition to food, clothing and shelter. In Jordan and Iraq, the International Rescue Committee hands out solar-powered cell phone chargers.

Fait Muedini, a professor of international studies at Butler University, studies human rights and politics in the Middle East. He says that relief organizations are stepping in to meet the needs of modern migrants.

“A lot of human rights agencies are handing out SIM cards and setting up Wi-Fi hotspots,” says Muedini in a phone interview. “Traditionally that's not the role of these organizations.”

But it's a crucial one. At a migrant camp in Northern Serbia, one refugee told a reporter that he was using an app on his cell phone to learn German, the language of his (hopefully) new homeland.