Article Lead Image

Stop shaming Syrian refugees for using cellphones

When in danger, a smartphone could be a lifeline.


Audra Williams

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 11, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 12:09 am CDT

We live in an increasingly connected world—one where not having access to a cellphone could mean more than mere inconvenience. It can even be the difference between life and death.

Recent analysis from the Pew Research Center shows that 53 percent of smartphone owners in the U.S. have used them to get help in emergencies. The studies reflect a reality that most people experience: Cellphones are useful during times of need—be it a car accident, a robbery, or to call the paramedics. Without these active lifelines, many would be left to fend for themselves, potentially at their peril.

But when the conversation about cellphone usage moves from Westerners to residents of the Middle East fleeing oppression, the tone changes. In the wake of an international refugee crisis, photos of displaced Syrians on their devices made the rounds on Twitter. Instead of acknowledging the benefits of technology during a major, violent conflict, many social media users have scoffed at the image. Who needs an iPhone in a refugee camp?

Critics suggest that those who are fleeing mass casualties, political oppression, and extreme destitution shouldn’t be carrying around these devices—because it signals that they really don’t need help after all. The idea is that what they’re facing couldn’t be that bad if they still have their cellphones—but nothing could be further from the truth. Keeping track of loved ones isn’t a luxury, nor is having a map that may help you navigate your way out of danger. Yet still, smartphone usage gets understood as a factor that refutes an individual’s refugee status. 

Keeping track of loved ones isn’t a luxury, nor is having a map that may help you navigate your way out of danger.

In reality, a working smartphone is can be as crucial as food and shelter for those fleeing Syria, which was recently named the most dangerous country in the world by the Global Peace Index. Despite the extreme conditions, the country’s inhabitants aren’t at a loss for access to vital technology. Syria has 87 mobile phones for every 100 people, which has had an immeasurable impact on virtually every aspect of the country’s conflict in recent years. 

As Patrick Howell O’Neill noted a few years ago at the Daily Dot, the Syrian uprising was one of the first social media wars. Using their phones and Internet connections, rebels have used online fundraising to support the revolution, and pro-government hackers gained access to 32,000 Skype conversations from opposition fighters and activists. Meanwhile, citizens post warnings to each other about everything from rabid dogs to chemical attacks.

With high levels of violent conflict and government surveillance serving as major obstacles, leaving Syria isn’t easy. For the four million people who have fled so far, many of them don’t survive the passage—or end up living in refugee camps. As for the refugees who have access to a smartphone, they’re much more likely to reach safety.

When escaping a country in search of refuge elsewhere, many dangers lurk along the way, but having a smartphone can help increase one’s chances of survival on the path toward safety. In fact, refugees are using Facebook groups to warn each other about unscrupulous traffickers, rafts employ GPS-powered devices to help occupants navigate, and WhatsApp connects users with Coast Guard agencies for rescue. Once safely out of Syria, refugees use their phones to get credible information how the war is developing, and find a safe place to sleep.

Somehow, we still have a hard time wrapping our heads around this reality. Some wonder, how could a refugee have a relatively fresh haircut, nice clothes, or access to Facebook? 

All of these things are higher-stakes versions of what most Westerners use smartphones for every day—from women using social media to warn each other about dangerous people in their community to an app that lets your friends track your movements to make sure you get home safe.

Yet many people still have it in them to sneer at a Syrian woman sending a weeping selfie to her loved ones and suggest that those with phones should be denied entry—even while the vast majority of Americans take their phone to bed with them every night, a privilege many take for granted. But for impoverished refugees, a cellphone is a much more affordable way to be online than a laptop or desktop computer. And for middle-class refugees, their phones are as much a part of their lives as yours or mine.

It’s because the refugees many of us have conjured in our imaginations are starving and wearing tattered clothes, relics of a cultural past that helps separate them from us. We don’t like to see an old iPhone in someone’s hand as they stand at a charging station in a refugee camp because we might have that same old iPhone in our pocket or purse. They symbolize normalcy for many Westerners, and we unconsciously let ourselves believe that these mass-produced possessions are part of what isolates us from the tragedy we see happening to others—always others—on the news.

But instead of being in a hurry to differentiate from those seeking asylum, perhaps we should ask ourselves what we might have in common with Syrians. What would you do, if you found yourself living in a tent far from home? You might print out pictures from your smartphone, so you can look at the faces of the people you are hoping are OK. You might set up a beauty salon to give women a place to connect and feel more like themselves. You might use an app to help you adjust to a new life.

No matter what you might vaguely feel in your gut, you haven’t earned a life of comfort (if you have it) or hardship (if you do not). In fact, the more we cling to what makes us feel comfortable, the harder it gets for others around the world. Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself jeering at a group of people who have left an unimaginable situation and are now trying to build a new life from the very little they still have—even if that “very little” includes a smartphone. 

Audra Williams is a writer, feminist, and standup comedian. Audra tweets at @audrawilliams.

Photo by (CC BY 2.0)

Share this article
*First Published: Sep 11, 2015, 1:28 pm CDT