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How Apps Are Still Serving The Refugees of the “Twitter Revolution”

Social media has raised awareness and organized support, but more practical efforts to help refugees have had an impact as well.

How Apps Are Still Serving The Refugees of the “Twitter Revolution”
Refugees charge their mobile phones at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary, September, 8 2015. [Photo: Thomas Campean, Anadolu Agency, Getty Images]

Pundits once called the Arab Spring the “Twitter Revolution.” But now that tens of millions have been driven from their homes in the resulting turmoil, social media have taken on a grimmer though no less important role: helping those on the run alleviate the grueling hardships of life in exile.

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A popular recent example is Gherbetna, a smartphone app and website designed by a Syrian refugee for other refugees from the Middle East. It’s something of a crossover between a Lonely Planet guide of sorts—the name in Arabic translates as “loneliness” or “exile”—and a Craigslist-style section for job ads and other services. You select which country you are in or desire to go to—the current choices are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Germany, Austria, and Sweden—and you get helpful tips in Arabic for how to settle there and to adapt to life in that country. You can also ask other users questions: anything from how to find shelter and register with the police to how to buy a bus ticket or where to find a home-style shawarma.

“[Gherbetna] is very famous among Syrians here in Turkey,” says Ahmad G., a Syrian refugee living in Istanbul who asked that only his last initial be used for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Syria.

Activists in the West have only just started to catch up with this online trend: Spurred by graphic images of desperate crowds breaking through state borders and police lines in several European countries, and of a drowned Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey, Internet users in more affluent countries have set up hospitality sites and adapted the principles of e-commerce in an effort to help the refugees.

But for the refugees themselves, social media have been a rare blessing from the start of their often long ordeals, aiding daring escapes from areas controlled by hostile forces and then providing practical information about aid and opportunities for resettlement. For several years now, both Facebook groups and dedicated social media sites such as Dubarah, which was founded in 2013 to help Syrians find jobs, have helped people network and exchange ideas and experience.

Jobs have been hard to come by. “Few people can benefit from the jobs section, because you have a few tens of jobs and thousands of job seekers,” Ahmad says.

But what makes Gherbetna unique are the tutorials. The one that teaches asylum seekers how to apply for a Turkish residence permit is particularly useful, Ahmad adds. There are similar tutorials for the other countries, though Turkey is a bit overrepresented, for two reasons: one, it hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country, or about half of the four million Syrians who have left their country due to the brutal civil war there.

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The second reason is that Turkey is one of the very few countries in the world that accept permanent refugees only from certain regions—in this case, Europe. Refugees from all other countries receive only a temporary residence permit that usually leaves them unable to work legally. This has been a major contributing factor to the massive wave of refugees who have recently risked their lives to reach Western Europe.

Advice on the app often reflects the grueling realities of this journey. “You mustn’t be afraid to look investigators in the eye,” one tutorial for dealing with European immigration officials says.

Gherbetna, or social media in general, has no easy solution to those challenges, though the administrators have sought to channel up-to-date information from the Turkish authorities to those refugees that have fallen through the cracks of the system. The app’s simple design—the advice section, for example, is titled “Help me”—and interface geared toward Arabic speakers have turned it into an invaluable resource to refugees who have reportedly struggled with the language or security features of Facebook and other Western-designed social media.

“It has some very useful features, particularly here in Turkey,” says Gaith Shalan, an Iraqi refugee who also lives in Turkey. “I hope they develop it further, and expand it to include information about other countries.”

About the author

(Primarily) Istanbul-based journalist writing about international politics, business, technology, and innovation.

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