Refugees: They’re just like us

In addition to serving as a lifeline during their journey, a refugee’s smartphone can serve another, unexpected purpose. It can show their European hosts, many of whom are wary of the influx of newcomers, that the people who are camping out at ports, train stations, and cafes, trying to catch Wi-Fi signal are not that different from them.

As the Independent’s James O’Malley wrote this week: “Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? Sorry to break this to you, but you’re an idiot.”

Syrian refugees looking at pictures of their missing–and presumed to be drowned–compatriots.
Syrian refugees looking at pictures of their missing–and presumed to be drowned–compatriots.
Image: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi

“I think there is an understanding that the cultural distance isn’t that great and things like technology show that proximity,” says Donohoe of the IRC. Just observing the refugees’ level of English and their ability to communicate fosters a sense that ”they could be us,” he adds.

Donohoe describes how he sat in cafes or restaurants in Lesbos, relying on their Wi-Fi for work. Next to him, refugees would be using the same Wi-Fi to speak to relatives back home.

But there’s a flip side, Donohoe says:  “You hear people saying: ‘Are they that desperate if they have a smartphone?’ There’s a sense that “if you have any extra kind of product you are not deserving in some way.” What they don’t realize is that many of these people are educated and were well off, back home, in Syria for instance, but were forced out by a brutal war. As The New York Times notes, the use of technology on the run is largely driven by tens of thousands of middle-class Syrians.

What’s more, cheap smartphones are widely available, and internet capable phones are increasingly popular in developing countries: in Jordan, 41% of people surveyed by the Pew Research Center own a smartphone, in Lebanon, 48%.

The odyssey of Ideas

A WhatsApp message from “Ideas,” a Syrian refugee.
A WhatsApp message from “Ideas,” a Syrian refugee.
Image: Ideas travels

Sam Nemeth, a Dutch journalist, has been following the journey of a Syrian man nicknamed “Ideas” by messaging with him on WhatsApp.

Ideas has made his way through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, all the while documenting his trip on his phone, and sending updates to Nemeth who posts them on a blog and Facebook group called ”Ideas travels: a Whatsapp odyssey in the Balkans.”

According to Nemeth and Ideas, WhatsApp is so popular among the Syrian refugees, because it was widely adopted in the country after the Assad regime shut down Skype.

Ideas tells Quartz, via email from Nemeth, that without WhatsApp it “would have taken him much longer and the risks of being arrested or robbed would have been much higher.” In many cases he was guided by messages from other Syrians.

Ideas got his refugee status in the Netherlands at the end of August, he told Nemeth through WhatsApp. His arrival was cheered on Facebook by Westerners who have learned of his story.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.