Ten Borders - The New Yorker
ERResearch's bookmarks 2016-08-08
The impact of social media on the Syrian refugee crisis has been profound. In a 2012 paper, Rianne Dekker and Godfried Engbersen, professors at Erasmus University, in Rotterdam, write that social media has not only helped in “lowering the threshold for migration,” by allowing people to remain connected with distant family members; it has also democratized the process, by facilitating “a form of silent resistance against restrictive immigration regimes.” The Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers group was created in June, 2013, by a thirty-one-year-old Syrian known as Abu Amar. At the time, Abu Amar, a former kitchen contractor, was living in Turkey with his wife and two children, trying to reach Germany in order to receive medical care for an injury: in Syria, shrapnel from an explosion had pierced his spinal cord, paralyzing him below the waist. He had attempted to reach Europe by sea, from Egypt, but he had been arrested before setting off and was deported to Turkey. “I didn’t have much to do, because of the injury,” he told me. He heard stories of people being abused by smugglers. “My heart was aching,” he explained. “So I started studying the history of immigration, especially among Afghans and Iraqis, looking at maps to analyze what these smugglers were doing.” He found routes that saved time and money, launched the Facebook group, and began posting annotated maps. Smugglers threatened to kill Abu Amar, and, in an act of sabotage, nude photographs were repeatedly posted to the group’s page, causing Facebook to shut it down. He has since created a new iteration of it, and for Arabic-speaking refugees Abu Amar has become an essential guide. At one point this summer, Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers had more than sixty thousand members. Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, told me that when Syrians arrive in Italy or Greece “they just melt away at the pier—they get on Facebook, and they know where to go.”
Abu Amar recently told me, “Sometimes I get a call when I am just about to go to sleep: ‘We are stuck in the middle of the forest—can you help us?’ I go to sleep between 5 and 6 a.m., sleep until about 2 p.m. Very few people reach out to me then.” He had established his own channel on Zello, a walkie-talkie app, becoming a real-time Harriet Tubman. “I’ve been told that if you go into any coffee shop in Syria these days people are talking about me and asking for my number,” he said.
On WhatsApp, Ghaith contacted Abu Amar, the host of the Facebook group. Abu Amar had turned his phone into a hotline for refugees; he was up late every night, guiding Syrians across borders and sending them annotated maps. His Facebook group continued dispensing advice. One post read, “The sea today and tomorrow is fatally dangerous. Don’t underestimate the situation. We have enough victims.” Three days later: “The storm is practically over. The best island to leave for today is Mytilene.”