Syr­i­ans use Face­book to plan, doc­u­ment es­cape


When Wael and his rel­a­tives from Syria climbed into an in­flat­able boat in the dead of night to cross the sea from Tur­key to Greece, they aban­doned all their be­long­ings — ex­cept their smart­phones.

“Our phones and power banks are more im­por­tant for our jour­ney than any­thing, even more im­por­tant than food,” said Wael, a 32-year-old from the dev­as­tated Syr­ian city Homs who reached the Greek re­sort is­land of Kos on Thurs­day morn­ing.

Refugees are us­ing Face­book groups with tens of thou­sands of mem­bers to share pho­to­graphs and ex­pe­ri­ences, find smug­glers’ phone num­bers, map their route from Tur­key to Greece and on­ward to north­ern Europe, and to cal­cu­late ex­penses.

They use What­sApp to help the coast guard pin­point their lo­ca­tion once their boats have reached Greek wa­ters, and Viber to let their fam­i­lies know they have landed safely.

“We couldn’t take any­thing with us on the boat, we were all so crammed. But these phones are our most pre­cious be­long­ings,” said Wael, who fled Syria with his bright green-eyed wife and 12 rel­a­tives, in­clud­ing three chil­dren.

They are among more than 135,000 refugees and mi­grants who have ar­rived in Greece this year, amid Europe’s big­gest mi­gra­tion cri­sis since World War II.

In Kos, Syr­i­ans can be seen tak­ing pho­to­graphs of each other on the beach us­ing their smart­phones, and or­der­ing cof­fee at lo­cal cafes where they can con­nect to In­ter­net.

“We have taken photos of ev­ery step of our jour­ney and sent them to our fam­i­lies,” said Wael’s cousin Raed, 30, adding that so­cial media is a “vi­tal” re­source for refugees who have no le­gal way to reach Europe.

He hopes to reach Ger­many, and once there ap­ply to be re­uni­fied with his fam­ily.

“There are en­tire con­ver­sa­tions about which coun­try is best for each per­son. For in­stance, Ger­many is good for fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion. Swe­den is good be­cause you get your pa­pers im­me­di­ately,” he said, cit­ing in­for­ma­tion he found on so­cial media.

‘The lost ones’

“Asy­lum and mi­gra­tion in all Europe” and “Asy­lum in Swe­den, Hol­land, Nor­way, Ger­many, Bri­tain, Aus­tria and Switzer­land” are just two of dozens of Face­book groups that Syr­i­ans are op­er­at­ing and us­ing to learn about the per­ilous, in some cases deadly jour­ney to Europe.

A fourth, closed group called “Bus stop for the lost ones” is one of the most pop­u­lar, boast­ing more than 42,000 mem­bers. Sev­eral Syr­i­ans in Kos told AFP they had used this page to map their route.

The ques­tions and en­su­ing con­versa- tions are var­ied and de­tailed.

“Guys, in which Ger­man fed­eral state should I hand my­self over to the po­lice? Where will I get a res­i­dence per­mit the quick­est?” asks one user.

“Thank God ... We have ar­rived on the (Greek) is­land of Chios,” wrote another user, post­ing a pic­ture of him­self and two other young men, one of them flash­ing a vic­tory sign.

“If I get res­i­dence in Ger­many, will I be al­lowed to travel to Le­banon?” asks a third.

“Quickly, quickly! I need a ho­tel in Bel­grade, does any­one have any ad­dresses?” in­quires a fourth.

“Guys, will US$2,500 be enough?” asks another.

“We do this to help each other,” ex­plained Said, a 22-year-old com­puter en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent from the be­sieged town of Daraya, south­west of Damascus.

“We want to help our fel­low Syr­i­ans so no one gets cheated by smug­glers. So when­ever some­one finds a smug­gler who charges less, his phone num­ber gets passed around,” he added.

Said, who was a non-vi­o­lent ac­tivist in the Syr­ian re­volt that later mor­phed into a sav­age civil war, be­lieves doc­u­ment­ing the jour­ney to Europe is as im­por­tant as de­tail­ing the vi­o­lence at home.

“We Syr­i­ans took pic­tures of ev­ery protest and ev­ery mas­sacre. We aren’t go­ing to stop shar­ing our sto­ries now. Mi­gra­tion is part of our story now,” he said.

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