Michael Pizzi

Isolated in Zaatari camp, Syrian refugees find ways to get online

The UN has begun to explore the idea of setting up free, public Wi-Fi in the refugee camp

MAFRAQ, Jordan — Months have turned to years since Muhammad Talash arrived at the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in October of 2012, and life here grows more isolating by the day. But it would be unbearable, Talash says, if he didn’t have the Internet. “It’s my only means of contact with the outside world,” the 28-year-old, an electronics vendor in Zaatari’s sprawling black market, says as he lays out his wares — laptops, smart phones, a satellite modem — on the glass countertop in his shack.

At first glance, you might not expect Internet access to be such an obsession in Zaatari, a desolate grid of tents in the northern Jordanian desert, where even electricity is scarce. But the abundance of shops like Talash’s, which has found a brisk business smuggling in the equipment camp residents need to pull down 3G data from nearby cell towers, reveal an overwhelming demand. Dozens of bootleg charging stations have been set up, where customers can pay to refuel their phones and computers with electricity stolen from the camp’s grid.

A vendor displays a bundle of smuggled SIM Cards at his shop.
Michael Pizzi

The massive influx of Syrians to northern Jordan has rendered data networks almost prohibitively slow — it can take hours to download a YouTube clip, even in the middle of the night, Talash says — but the hassle is worth it. Skype and the messaging app Viber are the only way he can afford to stay in touch with his four siblings, who like many Syrian families have been scattered across the region. Facebook and the BBC Arabic website are his only sources of information about the war ravaging his country, to which he desperately wants to return as soon as it’s safe. He is even using the Internet to research a way out of Zaatari, and has downloaded a couple of apps on his phone to help him learn English, since he thinks that might help.

“Without the net,” adds a friend, Jamal, who mans the counter while Talash talks, “all of this is impossible."

Inspired by the lengths refugees have gone to for even very clogged service in Zaatari, Internet and communications technology (ICT) experts and United Nations officials have begun to explore whether it might make sense to actually set up free, public Wi-fi in the camp. The idea would seem far-fetched, especially given the frequent funding shortfalls for coping with the Syrian crisis, which has created over 4 million refugees since 2011. But ICT experts argue the Internet is in many ways an obvious solution to many of the hardships of refugee life.

“The Internet is a really important tool for programs like online education,” which is otherwise totally unavailable in the camp, said Carleen Maitland, a professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University. Refugees are officially barred from working by Jordanian authorities, “but on the Internet, it’s a global marketplace.” She pointed out that sites like Mechanical Turk, where individuals can get paid to take surveys or find freelance translation gigs, could be a boon for Syrians.

A billboard above a shop along Zaatari's market area, which references various social media platforms and messaging apps that are popular among Syrians.
Michael Pizzi

Earlier this year, Maitland led a team of researchers to Zaatari to explore the possibility of setting up some kind of wireless network. They ran a survey that found young residents were actually logging into their social media accounts — mainly Facebook — nearly twice as often in Jordan as they did back home. Maitland said this was not entirely surprising. Syrians fled a country that was rapidly digitizing only to find themselves waiting out an endless war in a walled-in tent city, disconnected from their lives and idle almost all of the time.

United Nations officials say Internet access also has the potential to help humanitarian actors communicate with the refugees. “Any information that helps refugees make the right choices is crucial,” said Nasreddine Touaibia, a Zaatari camp official. He said the U.N. frequently struggles to combat misinformation that swirls around camp, such as a recent rumor that the global body was planning to relocate most residents of Zaatari to the less desirable, extremely remote Azraq refugee camp. “It created mass panic in Zaatari,” Touaibia said. “Some refugees started to plan their trip back to Syria.”

One electronics vendor, who did not want to be named or photographed, displays a stereo he hopes to sell.
Michael Pizzi

The U.N. refugee agency’s (UNHCR) innovation team has already released a mobile app designed for Syrians in Lebanon that explains refugees’ legal rights, dispels myths and points them to the nearest U.N. office in the event of an emergency. Two Syrian refugees have also designed a similar app that functions in Turkey, called Ghurbetna, which already has 11,000 users, said co-founder Ayham al-Jazzar. It posts jobs that refugees are eligible for, advice about landlords who might rip them off and explains rules that “we had no idea about before arriving here,” said Al-Jazzar.

But these projects will have limited reach unless data is more readily available to Syrians in camps like Zaatari, which houses close to 100,000 Syrians, said Chris Earney, the co-leader of UNHCR Innovation. “Connectivity is such a huge part of anybody’s life, particularly those displaced from homes,” he said. “When I move to a new city, I’d want to know ahead of time what’s around. I’m going to be looking on Foursquare, and we don’t have that kind of thing for refugees yet.”

It isn’t clear who could fund a project like camp-wide Wi-Fi, which Maitland’s team suspects would not be affordable for the U.N. without an outside benefactor. One workaround would be to cover the costs by selling bandwidth to vendors or Internet cafe owners, though that would mark a departure from UNHCR policy that has always mandated services for refugees must be free.

A more viable solution might be to boost bandwidth in the camp using temporary mobile solutions with a microwave link to the closest city, Mafraq. Similar setups have been deployed in remote locales across sub-Saharan Africa at minimal cost, said Paul Schmitt, a computer science doctoral candidate at the University of California-Santa Barbara who traveled with the Penn State team. Another possibility is that local Internet cafes could be set up by connecting community centers in each district of the camp back to base camp, at a cost of somewhere in the $30,000 to 40,000 range, plus the monthly cost of bandwidth, he estimated.

Any of these solutions will have to clear another obstacle: Jordanian officials, who have final say on all camp matters. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Internet cafés have always been banned in Zaatari by order of the Jordanian police. At two computer arcades along the main drag (also known as the Champs Elysees or Little Damascus), where customers can pay a few Syrian pounds for an hour of Counter-Strike or “Aleppo City” — a Syrian version of Grand Theft Auto, dubbed in Arabic — owners said they would love to offer Internet access, too, but have been told that it is “forbidden.”

One of several computer arcades in Zaatari, where users can pay a few Syrian pounds for an hour of gaming.
Michael Pizzi

On the one hand, authorities may fear a “loss of control, that when people are able to freely communicate it can promote camp militarization,” explained Maitland. “That is somewhat unfounded,” she said, noting that militias have popped up in refugee camps across the globe. “It’s unclear what difference a high-speed connection would make.”

The other, more existential reluctance is that any significant improvement to camp infrastructure makes it a little more livable, and therefore more permanent. Jordan, a nation of just over 6 million people that saw more than one million Palestinian refugees stream across its borders in 1948 and 1967 and never leave, can ill afford to accommodate the roughly one million Syrians who are burdening its social services and straining societal tensions.

These “previous experiences” have taught Jordanian authorities that there is a balance to be struck, said Touaibia, the Zaatari official. Even as the camp grows to be the fourth largest “city” in Jordan, they have been mostly flexible, allowing smuggled goods to filter through the front gates so that the black market could flourish. The idea is to “keep everyone happy,” he said. Recently, Jordan relented and gave the green light to UNHCR plans for a power grid as well as a 10-megawatt solar plant that will provide the electricity camp residents have already been stealing. Touaibia said the UN will continue to push for improvements around Zaatari, but at the end of the day, “We need to make sure it remains a camp, not a city."

In the meantime, refugees have little choice but to wait. Talash, the electronics vendor, says he has learned to be patient, both for pages to load on his browser and for his country’s war to end. "Life is comfortable enough here,” he says, but better Internet access would make his time in exile that much easier. “Ya rait [if only],” he said. “We’d be so happy.

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