In January this year, I spent a day volunteering at a warehouse which served the Calais-based refugee camp simply known as "The Jungle." In my first post which reflected on some of the ways mobile might be used to support the coordination of volunteer efforts, I highlighted the waste and duplicated efforts I observed. In this post, I wish to share some ideas and spotlight some notable efforts I've seen online to support refugees who are based in the camp.
Towards the latter half of the day, I got the opportunity to visit The Jungle to deliver bundles of clothing that we had been preparing all day. The drive to the camp was lined with scores of police, many of them in military-style riot gear. Upon entering the camp, I was struck by the conditions I saw: mud as far as the eye could see, making it very difficult for the people based there to walk around.
Nonetheless, I also saw what was a surprisingly thriving community from different nations exhibiting a "we're in this together" attitude. People from different countries were dotted everywhere and concentrations of people from different countries were demarcated with flags; small businesses were set up to provide hot food; barber shops were providing hair cuts to men and boys... Were it not for the tents, I honestly would have thought I was in the multicultural heart of any major world city.
While the people there did not have much given the circumstances of how they came to be in France, the air seemed laden with hope, anticipation, and planning for what to do next. The photo at the top of the post is from a Sudanese refugee whom I will simply refer to as 'Aziz' (not his real name). Aziz was an artist who kindly invited me into his tent along with a long-term volunteer he knew. There, we took tea and he recounted his journey of traveling from Sudan in pictures that he drew.
This picture I have shared at the top of the post is Aziz's colorful depiction of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. What struck me about this photo is that, almost in the very center of the drawing, is an MTN billboard. For those of you unfamiliar with MTN, it is a large, multi-national mobile network operator (MNO) headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa. For those in the West, the most recognizable brand names are Apple, Microsoft, Google, Coca-Cola and IBM. But if you're from an emerging market where mobile brought you the ability to connect with loved ones, among other transformations, then you almost certainly can name every MNO operating in your country.
Aziz's photo was a poignant demonstration of just how important mobile connectivity is to people who are living in refugee camps. Previously, we've seen that people in the West have pilloried refugees who have mobile phones because, you know, people should still be using smoke signals to communicate (/sarcasm). Yet, mobile literally provides a lifeline that facilitates the fulfillment of both practical and social needs.
A news story from the Huffington Post highlights why this is:
In July 2015, a group of Greece-based aid groups noted that many refugees ask for food and water, but only after asking for Wi-Fi access and for a place to charge their phones. That shouldn't seem strange at all if you're like me and your mobile phone is practically an appendage. Not only were the refugees using mobile to coordinate their routes into Europe, they were also using it to tell loved ones back home that they had made it safely - something which is very important given the spate of drownings on the attempts to reach the continent. I cannot imagine what would be worse: anxiously waiting for a chance to make the call home or being a family member waiting to receive it.
Proving that humanity is not yet dead in a world of Donald Trump-, Marie LePen-, and Nigel Farage-aligned people, a Facebook group launched in February 2016 has now raised over USD$100,000 to provide people living in refugee camps with the connectivity they need. Notably, this crowdfunding initiative was started by another person who had the experience of volunteering in the same camp as me. While the completion of my PhD has been a major stumbling block in terms of being able to contribute anything meaningful apart from ideas, I do hope I can change that in due course.
Meanwhile here are my top three ideas for how mobile can further support people who are living in refugee camps:
- Mobile learning and training. One thing that was disheartening was that people in the camps did not have many activities to engage in, especially when it was wet. Providing them with an opportunity to work on skills so that, whenever they get where they're going, they will be in a better place to seek employment seems like a no brainer! This concept is one that myself and Lauren Dawes of Panoply Digital have been ruminating on for a few years, so we will be keen to explore any partnerships in this area.
- Mobile entertainment. How amazing would it be for this wealth of diverse people to have an opportunity to learn how to create their own mobile videos as a way to tell their own stories? They could create comedies, dramas, share news from within the refugee community... the possibilities are endless! These videos could then be traded on What's App groups, shared with people back home, and certainly be used to demonstrate that life does have its highlights, even when you're living in tough conditions. This is a side of development that rarely gets shown.
- Citizen journalism. Citizen journalism could certainly go a long way to facilitating a voice for people living in refugee camps so that the (often) distorted Western narratives are not the only voices around. Linked to point 2 above, so much of the reporting coming out of the camps is about how horrible things are, yet no one is talking about the incredible amounts of resilience being exhibited among the people living in the camps, the support they are giving to help one another, and even some of the ingenuity that is being born from necessity. While anonymity is often valued because it may hurt their chances of being settled in a country of their preference, this could be addressed through editing or indirect camera shots. Maybe even going with just text-based reporting so that dispatches can be shared via media-friendly forums like the Huffington Post.
What are some of your ideas? Please feel free to share in the comments!