Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP / Getty Images

For asylum seekers, a cellphone is a bridge to the future and the past

No other item can hold the connections to home and make a life-or-death difference like the ubiquitous smartphone

LESBOS, Greece — Shouts filled the air as hundreds of Syrians poured through the main gate of the Kara Tepe transit camp, part of a newly arrived group of refugees. Taxis honked, jockeying for fares to take down to the port, as potential passengers — migrants and asylum seekers — haggled over price.

Vendors called out as smoke rose from their food trucks, peddling kebabs, gyros and bags of chips to the hungry crowd. In the turmoil, Syrian Qassem Juma and his brother sat perfectly still on their duffel bags on the side of the road leading into the camp, each staring intently at the screen of a smartphone.

“We lost our friends,” says Juma, 21, before quickly returning to his screen. “But they dropped us a pin on Whatsapp, so now we’re trying to find them.” 

He and his younger brother, who declined to be identified, arrived that morning by flimsy, overcrowded raft across a dangerous sea that has killed just over 800 people in 2015.  Taking huge risks, they escaped fighting in their hometown of Deir ez-Zor and were now on the far eastern border of the European Union. But they had lost their friends somewhere in the chaos of the crossing.

Alone in a new place with little money and only a couple backpacks, the brothers did not seem worried that they had become separated from their group. Even in the immense tide of displaced people sweeping through the island, they seemed confident that Whatsapp, an instant messaging application owned by Facebook, would reunite them. “My phone is the most important thing I have. If I lost that, it would be a catastrophe,” Juma says, his eyes wide.

Even though Donald Trump was surprised that Syrian refugees (and Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghans and others) have smartphones, these asylum seekers and migrants relies on its phones like anyone else. Only here, the stakes are much higher.

For Juma and the millions of others pouring into Europe right now, a disabled smartphone could mean losing weeks stuck at a suddenly closed border, sleeping in a frozen field, never finding their friends, losing touch with what is going on back home or never talking to their families ever again. 

Adrift, yet not lost

Today’s migrants and refugees make up the biggest wave of such movement since World War II, use their phones to navigate, access news and information, connect with home and as emotional support in a way unprecedented in the history of human wandering.

Now Juma and his brother, using their phones, planned to follow hundreds of thousands of other Syrian refugees to Germany, using social media to get there. “For me Facebook and Twitter are the most important because everyone is on them. Facebook is like a map to Germany for me,” says Juma as he types a message on his screen. “I have a lot of friends in Germany and they share information on how to get there.”

“Information is really a lifeline for refugees,” says Frank Schott, the managing director of global programs for NetHope, a consortium of NGOs that helps improve IT connectivity among humanitarian aid organizations in developing countries and in areas affected by disaster through collaborations with tech giants like Cisco and Google. Smartphones, says Schott, allow “refugees to know where they are going, where they will be welcomed, what kind of job and housing prospects there are, and what other types of services can they count on.”

He adds that mobile devices also help migrants know how to get where they are going, “which routes are safe, which borders they will need to cross, where the transit centers are along the way, and where they can get food, health care, and family support.”

International aid organizations have slowly come to realize the very real psychological, social and practical necessity that cellphones have become to migrants and in developing countries around the world.

In Afghanistan nearly 3 out of 4 people have a mobile phone subscription, though not necessarily a smartphone.

Ninty-two percent of Iraqis and 87 percent of Syrians have mobile cellular subscriptions, according to the CIA World Factbook. Globally, 3.2 billion people were using the Internet by the end of 2015, of which 2 billion are from the developing world, and there are over 7 billion mobile phone subscriptions, reports the International Telecommunication Union in an end of year report.

“Connected refugees are empowered to help themselves,” says Schott. So far, NetHope has assisted refugees by setting up 24 Wi-Fi hot spots and charging stations in six countries along the European migration route as well as developing a website with maps and transit information to which refugees are directed when accessing the Wi-Fi at certain camps.

Other organizations like InterNews are posting signs and maps along the route, helping migrants navigate in a more traditional way, since only 20 to 30 percent of refugees have a cellphone, according to NetHope.

A phone-full of memories

Almost as important as shelter itself is the mobile phone, which gives lost asylum seekers vital information on safe routes and emergency services. It also holds memories and contacts from home.
Peter Nicholls / Reuters

Up the main street of the Kara Tepe camp, families sit on blankets in front of donated emergency shelters.

Many of them are looking at their phones, scanning maps, playing Candy Crush or listening to music, but most are on social media or a chat app, getting in touch with family and friends, or posting the ubiquitous selfie taken just after landing on Lesbos’ rocky coast.

In one of the shelters sits Idris Tobal Hammu, a Kurd from Aleppo. About a dozen children play near him on the floor as he talks with his cousin about their next move. In the back of the shelter his wife combs their oldest daughter’s hair. Detailing the horrific battle for Aleppo, Hammu, 38, pulls out his light gold-colored iPhone 5 and shows me a picture of his family’s olive grove covered in a light dusting of snow. He grows despondent and says it is the only picture he has left.

What makes smartphones so important is that they combine pragmatic and emotional tools to help the roughly 1.03 million migrants and refugees that have arrived by land and sea to Europe in 2015 find stability in a confusing, new and potentially dangerous environment.

The first time they tried to cross the narrow straight in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, their flimsy, overloaded inflatable boat capsized just after leaving shore.

“All of our phones and documents went into the water,” says Hammu, 38. “Because we lost our phones, we now have to ask other Syrians for their phones so that we can call home and tell our families that we are OK.” Because his phone was tightly packed in plastic wrap to protect it from seawater, he was able to save his.

“I have my family, my friends — everything is on my phone,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be here, but when I look at the photos on my phone, it makes me feel sad.” He looks up and around the shelter at the handful of backpacks representing all of the worldly possessions of his family. Then he refocuses. “Google is the most important, because we can find all the information we need to get to Europe,” he says, but adds, “but right now it’s not working because I don’t have a SIM card.”

The pictures, songs, videos, books and the other bits and pieces of daily life stored on phones and in social media accounts connect people to a life they have had to flee, giving them comfort similar to what a shoebox of memories a refugee fleeing Europe during WWII would carry.

“Refugees are fleeing their homes and their native country. It’s impossible for any of us to truly appreciate the stress that puts on someone,” says Schott. “It’s a journey filled with uncertainty and stress. Having pictures and songs is a way to help bring back memories of better days, and being able to communicate with family members every so often, even if it’s a simple ‘I made it to Lesbos and I am OK,’ takes some of the pressure off the families that are fleeing Syria,” he says.

If Osie Ibrahim, 19, had not had a phone and SIM card while trying to make the dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece, she is sure she would have died. Before she crossed into Europe, she had to hide from the police for three days in the forests on Turkey’s coast. She and the strangers she was traveling with waited for a boat and life jackets promised by smugglers, who regularly charge about $1,200 per person.

But none came. They had no food, no water, no shelter and no blankets. Finally someone was able to send a text message out and get help. “So, it’s really important to have a smartphone,” she says in accented but good English that she says she learned from listening to American music.

Now Ibrahim is sitting in a shelter at Kara Tepe listening to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” while she uses her Samsung’s mirrored back to do her eyeliner. With nothing to do in the camp but wait for her number to come up for a spot on the next ferry to the mainland, she passes the time like countless other teenage girls around the world.

“I love Rihanna and Lady Gaga,” she says. “I love all Western pop, everyone but Justin Bieber.”

Her future is unclear. She wants to go to Holland and start a new life there, but she is traveling without family after escaping the war. Her path there will be difficult, dangerous and frightening, but her smartphone gives her some small comfort. “I’d be bored, worried and I wouldn't know what to do if I didn’t have my phone,” she says, finishing her eyes.

“When I check my phone and have messages I feel lie I’m still with my family and friends. It’s like my safety blanket.”

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