Syrians and their Cell Phones … A Home in the Pocket

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A Syrian refugee checking his phone in the asylum room in Sweden Camp, February 2016 (AFP)

Enab Baladi

Like all new phenomena, most Syrians welcomed the arrival of the cell phone in early 2003 with rejection and fear. This turned into stern condemnation of young people’s obsession with smart phones and their habit of using it during gatherings and conversations. But this did not last long. The unwelcome guest soon became like a homeland in the pockets of Syrians.

“My phone is what got me here”, says Marwa, a Syrian refugee in Germany, while describing her relationship with her smart phone. Pointing at the broken screen she says, “The screen was broken on our way from Greece to Germany. This phone was with me throughout many adventures when fleeing from the Hungarian police. Through downloading an offline map application, my phone guided me without any Internet connection. In spite of its poor state, I’m still loyal to it”.

Like all Syrian refugees, Marwa is still using her phone as a compass after living for one year in Germany. “I like walking in streets that I don’t know, all I have is my curiosity and the GPS, which allows me to wander around in places that I don’t know. It also helps me reach government offices without fear of asking others or struggling because of the language. I cannot imagine our situation, as refugees, without the smart phones that make our lives easier and ease our experience of exile”.

An Interpreter and a Teacher

In addition to Maps applications, Rafiq, an engineer from Hama who lives in Turkey, uses his smart phone to communicate with Turkish people through different translation applications. “I came to Turkey two years ago and I did not know a single Turkish word. But I was able to visit a city that is not frequented by Syrians, rent a house and agree on everything with the owner. I also communicated with the neighbors and told them the story of the Syrian revolution. All this was through a translation application on my smart phone”, he said.

Rafiq did not continue using his phone as an interpreter. Instead, he began looking for applications to learn the Turkish language. He told us about his experience, “I couldn’t enroll in Turkish language courses because they were expensive. That’s why I resorted to a free application to learn the language. Within three months of using it every day, I became able to conduct a simple conversation.”

Even though he was able to reach a level of speaking that allows him to meet his simple daily needs, Rafiq did not stop there as he was eager to master the language and open more opportunities to interact with his environment. This motivated him to finish the 66 lessons in the application. “After I finished all the application content, I found a more advanced application. I bought it and started using it to teach myself. After one and a half years of self-learning, I reached level B2, just by using my smart phone.”

Remote Working Station

A compass, an interpreter, a teacher and much more. But this was not the case for all Syrians. They started looking for other possibilities that smart phones can offer. That is how Marwa managed to find a job while living in a refugee camp, “I only brought my phone and my skills with me from Syria, but I believe that as long as I have Internet, I can find a job and be productive, even though I am in a camp. Sure enough, I was able to come across a freelance website and I started receiving translation jobs for a more-or-less good salary.”

Using a four-inch screen, Marwa began translating, “I used a simple text editor and a dictionary that helps me translate difficult words, and I was able to translate a good number of articles in a short time. Translation via mobile phone was not easy as the device is slow because it is old and the screen is small and broken. Besides, the keypad is not suitable for fast typing but I just wanted to work”, she said.

After using her phone to do the translations for a period of time, Marwa was able to save up some of her salary to buy a device with a bigger screen, “I didn’t have enough money to buy a computer so I bought a tablet with an eight-inch screen and connected it to an external keyboard, and now I can work faster and more easily.”

A Mini-Television

Omm Mounir was eagerly scrolling her Facebook homepage to find news about her hometown in eastern al-Ghouta and set her mind at ease about her children there. “My son is the one who bought me this device and created a Facebook account for me before leaving al-Ghouta. He is still there and I’m currently in Turkey but I use his gift to read the news on the pages of coordinating committees and journalists. May Allah protect them.”

Omm Mounir adds that she uses her phone as an alternative to a television, as she does not have one in the house. She uses the phone to watch videos and listen to Quran. “My little girl uses it to watch TV series and cartoons. It’s a small device but it replaces the TV.”

“Family Group”

In addition to the coordinating committees, Omm Mounir uses the phone to unite her children who are scattered throughout Syria and around the world. “My daughter created a group on WhatsApp and added all of us. That way, we could have a group conversation and check on each other. When we all gather to talk and laugh, I feel like my sons and daughters are still around me. I thank Allah that they are fine, despite the distance”, she explained.

Omm Mounir says that groups have become very popular in her environment. She said, “I have a group with my siblings, and each one of them has a group with their children who are scattered in different places. I’m also following a group on Eastern al-Ghouta news. This makes communication and access to news a lot easier. I talk to my children whenever they have Internet. WhatsApp conversations are free and we can send pictures. That’s how I check up on them. If we were only able to use international calls, that would have cost us a lot and I wouldn’t have been able to hear their voices on a daily basis.”

A Library at Your Fingertips

Maysa misses a lot of things since she was forced to flee Homs, but what she misses the most are her books and her father’s library. “When my mother couldn’t find me anywhere in the house, she would look for me among my father’s books. Ever since I learnt to read, I spent all my time reading books and going to bookshops in Homs. When I couldn’t find a particular book, I would try to find it in the al-Halbouni bookshop in Damascus. All of this changed when we moved to Turkey.”

The city where Maysa now lives does not have bookshops that sell Arabic books and she was not able to find a free book-shipping service to Turkey. This has made it harder for her. “The websites that offer free shopping require a PayPal account, which is not available in Turkey. On other websites such as “neelwafurat.com” the shipping cost can exceed the cost of the book itself. All of this has deprived me from having any hard copies of books in the last three years”.

Even though there are no books available, Maysa has not stop reading. What has helped her do that is her phone, “I make up for the lack of books through electronic books. I download the books I want from the Internet and read them. As for the books I can’t find, I try to look for paid electronic books. This has allowed me to read dozens of books. I replaced my Homs library with a library in my pocket. I carry it with me wherever I go.”

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