volunteering with refugees at the We Are One women's centre


But they have smartphones...

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Smartphone of one of the refugees at the centre in Samos today

Earlier this year I was at a party in North London. The refugee crisis came up in conversation and a well-heeled woman assured me that her daughter had seen some of the refugees arriving on a Greek island 'and you know what: they all had smartphones!'

She turned away to top up her glass at that point because clearly there was nothing more to be said about those deceitful refugees with their tales of war and trafficking, fear and modern-day slavery ... and their smartphones.

I've thought of so many things I wanted to say to that woman since our conversation, and even more since I arrived on Samos this week as a volunteer here in a centre for women who are refugees.

I don't have anything I can express more pithily than the meme I saw circulating on social media a few years ago.

'Of course refugees have smartphones - they're escaping from war, not from the Middle Ages.'

But there are some other things I'd like to add. I doubt my North London drinking companion will be reading this, but just in case, here are some of my more measured responses to her...

It is true that a large number of the refugee women I've seen here on Samos clutch their smartphones close. Most of us can probably understand the reason for that - you may well be reading these words on your own smartphone. So you'll know that a smartphone is not really a phone: it can be a lifeline. It's a map. It's a memory. It's where you can photograph and store your travel documents even if people-smugglers confiscate them from you. It's where you can drop a pin or find a What3words location to help you find your way around an unknown city or camp. And of course it can also be used for, you know, calling people. If you can find somewhere with free wifi (like the We Are One women's refugee centre on Samos) then with WhatsApp, Viber or Telegram your smartphone can give you immediate and free access to your lawyer or social worker, and to your family back home - and if you're illiterate then such voice calls are the only way to communicate.

With the live streaming of Facebook's 'watch parties' and similar, the communication can be even more profound. When I walked into the We Are One centre in Samos earlier this week, a woman was sitting in a corner, sobbing over her phone. She was watching the streamed filming of her uncle's funeral in Afghanistan.

But if These People are really in such great need, why don't they sell their phones? Well, if you were in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Somalia - or any of the other countries I've met women from this week - you could no doubt sell your phone and get enough euros to feed your family for perhaps some days. And then? You'd have no way to plan or navigate your way to safety or other food supplies. It would be a recklessly short-term use of your resources.

These are some of the things I would say to that N1 party-goer about the tens of thousands of people entitled - legally and morally - to our protection as they flee to safety with their smartphones. But I would also want to acknowledge that not 100 percent of the people claiming asylum on the Greek islands or anywhere else have genuinely 'been persecuted in their home country in the past or have a well-founded fear that they will be persecuted if they go back.' People chance their luck, follow their dream, believe what they're told - and so parents in poor and unstable countries bundle their children (and their Samsungs) onto dangerous journeys and wash up on the EU's shores in Samos.

And then? There's a child who could have been safe at 'home', now sheltered under polythene in the Jungle around an overcrowded camp, and contracting diseases from the lack of sanitation. This is clearly a miscalculation on the part of her parents, a miscalculation based on misinformation, wishful thinking, lack of knowledge of how the world works, even pure irresponsibility... And we are to say to that child that we are sorry, but that since their parents do, you know, have a smartphone then we don't consider their plight to be any business of ours?

Of course this isn't really about smartphones... That lady in North London was unsettled by the fact that these people turned out to have some of the same accessories that she did. Some of them even had a college education. In fact, they turned out to be People a bit Like Us. Is that actually the reason that it bothered her so much? Is it easier when the beneficiaries of our charitable thoughts, or our charitable donations, are a clearly differentiated colour, in a different continent (not here, in our backyard) and reduced to such destitution that we say we cannot imagine. We know they are different from us; and we reassure ourselves that it couldn't happen to me.

Terrible injustice exists in the world, and your smartphone - or your parents' smartphone - doesn't make you exempt. Nor should it make you exempt from the compassion of others.

Elizabeth Gowing is a storyteller for those making positive change in the world. A writer and presenter who shares her stories on BBC Radio 4, she also offers training and consultancy. Use the contact form if you know stories that need to be told and want her help in telling them.




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