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4 smartphone tools Syrian refugees use to arrive in Europe safely

Syrian refugee Yusuf holds his smartphone, which he describes as “the most important thing.” With this, he said, he is able to call his father in Syria. © B. Sokol/UNHCR

This post was originally published on the World Bank Voices blog. 

If you look inside the bag of any refugee on a life-threatening boat trip to Europe, you see a few possessions that vary from one refugee to another. However, there is one thing they all carry with them: a smartphone.

Those refugees have been criticized for owning smartphones, but what critics do not understand is that refugees consider these expensive devices as their main lifeline to the wider world, helping them flee wars and persecution. They are also the tools through which they tell the world their stories and narrate what is described as the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

The refugees’ escape to Europe is the first of its kind in a fully digital age. It has changed how the exodus is unfolding. Technology used by the refugees is not just making the voyage safer, but also challenging stereotypes held against them. Many Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and other refugees fleeing to Europe have shown through their use of smartphones that not all refugees are poor. They flee because they fear for their lives.

Here are a few of many stories on how refugees are using smartphones to survive and tell their stories to the world:

1. Messaging Apps: WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger

19-year-old Abdul, from Syria, almost drowned, and an Iraqi mother of three on the same sinking boat didn’t survive. He shared his ordeal in real time.

In a series of text messages shared on Whatsapp with a BuzzFeed reporter, Abdul narrated the horror he witnessed before, during, and after the boat sank. He did not make it across to Greece. After the boat sank, he swam back to Turkey and survived. Read his full story here.

Along the way, many refugees communicate through WhatsApp. They share advice and exchange messages about their experiences at borders, smugglers and the safest paths. In this story, for instance, a Syrian refugee named Ghaith fled Syria with a backpack containing four shirts, a pair of pants, a scarf, and a smartphone. WhatsApp was one of the main communications tool throughout his long, tearful journey from Syria to Sweden.

2. Facebook

When Syrian refugee Kenan al Beni’s boat ran into trouble at sea and almost drowned, he and his friends were well prepared to survive. They called the Greek coast guard on their cell phone. Later, they landed safely on the coast of Lesbos.

"We have all of their numbers,” the 19-year-old refugee told CNN.  “We send them in WhatsApp and they come and save us," he told CNN. He got all the information he needed through Facebook.

Like Al Beni, many refugees “like” Facebook pages where other refugees compile advice to fellow travelers on the refugee trail to Europe. Read his full story here.

3. GPS and Map Apps like Google Maps

Firas was on board of a boat whose engine died in the middle of the sea between Turkey and Greece. The Syrian refugee knew where exactly he was because he used the GPS on the smartphone he had wrapped in a plastic bag to save it from getting wet. The Syrian refugee made it to the coast in Greece after seven hours of swimming. He used his phone’s GPS to make sure he was swimming in the right direction. His phone later got wet and broke, but he realized he was on the right track as he saw the light of Lesbos from far away. Read Firas’ full ordeal here.

Other refugees say that throughout the journey they use Google Maps while crossing on both land and sea. “We would be lost without Google maps,” one Syrian refugee told the BBC.

4. Selfies

Yes, selfies and sometimes with a selfie stick. It’s not how we use them to record birthdays, graduation, or a party we went to over the weekend. Many refugees who land safely take selfies to document their arrival and send to their loved one back home. And for some, a selfie is a reminder they want to use in the future about the horrors they had to face in order to survive and start a new life.

30-year-old Mehar Ahmed Aloussi from Damascus told Time magazine “We want memories from the bad trip we had. … When I go and settle down in another country, I want to remember my way.”