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No, cellphones are not a luxury for Syrian refugees

A Syrian refugee tries to get a signal to make phone calls at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
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Social media denizens have been highly critical of Syrian refugees who own cellphones. Some even conclude that taking selfies of an attempt to flee a war-torn country should disqualify people from refugee status entirely. But these flames of outrage are missing the story of what the cell phone really means to refugees.

As a member of a team of researchers interviewing dozens of Syrian refugees in camps and cities in Jordan, I found that refugees do not view the cellphone as a luxury but rather a necessity, equivalent to food and water. This was true for refugees living in Zaatari, the world’s second largest refugee camp, as well as those who live in urban areas.

Syrian refugees are experiencing “information precarity,” a condition in which information instability and insecurity may contribute to feelings of vulnerability, while heightening their exposure to violence. Use of a cellphone to cope with information precarity may actually benefit transnational populations such as refugees and migrants as they adapt creatively to a hazardous information environment.

[This extended Syrian family made it to Hungary: ‘What happens next?’]

One of the key ways refugees experienced information precarity was through a lack of information. Either refugees can’t find the answer to key questions (When is the next water delivery to their part of the refugee camp?) or the information available is too vague or inaccurate to be useful.

For example, when Al Jazeera reports that a bomb was dropped on a Syrian village and people were killed, the refugees want to know which village and who died. It might be a family member or friend. The only way to find out this level of detail is through the cell phone.

Refugees also constantly hear rumors and misinformation as they go about their daily lives. Rumors can lead to poor decision-making, fear and even physical clashes. Riots broke out in Zaatari when conflicting information spread among the residents about violence committed by Jordanian military who oversee the camp.

Thus, refugees turn to each other for information, using the cellphone to verify what they hear from the news media, officials and agencies and even other refugees. As one refugee clutching his cell phone told us: “I trust only this 100 percent.”

This lack of trust isn’t surprising. The Syrian regime runs an authoritarian media system that only reports what it wants people to know or believe. It also operates a sophisticated spying operation on citizens’ phone calls, social media use and e-mail. That system continues to affect refugees who are outside the country, because their call could endanger a loved one who remained behind. Once again, we discovered that the Syrian refugees adapt, self-censoring and using coded language when calling home.

Our research also found that while being separated from family is one of the hardest parts of being a refugee, the cellphone enables refugees to stay connected. Sometimes the cellphone was used to send money both into and out of Syria. The refugees constantly mentioned how much they valued their ability to hear updates from children, spouses, parents and other relatives.

Births, weddings, deaths—previously events that would have brought large clans together—are now experienced for millions of Syrians via the phone. As one woman said, “We share their happiness and their sadness.”

For some, the cellphone holds their last images of loved ones, of familiar places, of home. One enterprising refugee has set up a thriving business helping people recover and print those photos from their phones, a phenomenon featured in a new documentary, “District Zero,” produced in collaboration with Oxfam.

While the influence of the cell phone and internet communications in the Arab Spring revolutions continues to be debated, we found refugees viewed their phones as powerful devices that could allow any of them to challenge a regime. It’s no surprise then that they prioritize taking their phones with them— aboard dinghies and across barbed wire to new lands and new lives. They see the phone as a powerful lifeline and, if need be, a means of standing up for themselves.

The cellphone is changing how refugees experience separation, how they adapt to relocation, how they navigate perilous journeys to new countries. The practices they develop along the way are not only mechanisms for coping with information precarity, they may help us all imagine new uses for technology among marginalized populations.

Melissa Wall is a professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge. She is the co-author with Madeline Otis Campbell and Dana Janbek of, “Syrian Refugees and Information Precarity,” (New Media & Society, 2015). You can follow her @MelissaWall