How a smartphone connects people stranded in Greece to safety, information and family

When someone first suggested that we buy smartphones for refugees and migrants stranded in the sites in Epirus where Oxfam works, my reaction was to laugh – a smartphone seemed like a luxury that shouldn’t be covered by a humanitarian response.

Since arriving in Greece, Oxfam has covered a lot of the traditional humanitarian response. We’ve provided toilet containers, fixed sewerage systems, built laundry basins, given out garbage bags and toiletries and cleaning equipment – the list goes on and on.

Filling the information gaps

And while it is all essential, I often suspect that the most valuable thing we have given to people stranded in Greece is information. Our team of amazing Farsi and Arabic speaking officers spend hours answering people’s questions; they keep information boards filled with the latest news, and they work out what the information gaps are and how we or others can fill those gaps - and in Greece it sometimes feels like there are just gaps and nothing else.

So, despite my initial reaction, I realized that smartphones are not a luxury item – in 2016 they are essential for people on the move. So, over the past few weeks, we have started to give every family a phone.

Information is power

A phone provides access to more information than any of our Community Engagement Officers could ever hope to give through visits or printed information.

More importantly, a phone gives people, who in so many ways have lost control over their lives, the power to access information they need on their own terms and at their own pace.

It helps them double check things and navigate the complicated and confusing asylum system that is their best chance of achieving a life of safety and dignity in Europe.

Oxfam/ECHO distribute smartphones to refugees and migrants, in Epirus, Greece. Credit: Oxfam/ECHOConnecting people and keeping them safe

“It is also important for connecting ourselves to the internet like Facebook and Twitter, for knowing the news and knowing what is going on with the other camps and the news in general – social communication,” Syrian Female, 28 years old.

A phone also increases people’s daily safety. It gives the simple security of being able to call for help or to google translate from Arabic to Greek when they need to communicate something to a local.

It also means that when a mother is in hospital she can still call her husband and other children who are left in the camp. Or when an older son is shopping in town, he can be contacted in case there is an emergency in the camp.

“Phones are important for communication with relatives and friends, and if there is any problem to be able to communicate with people responsible”, Syrian Male, 20 years old.

A phone also means people can stay connected to loved ones scattered around the world. Most people in Greece have family left behind in Syria or Turkey or Afghanistan, and their wellbeing is a constant source of concern and stress. The benefit of being able to keep in regular touch with family is never starker than when I wander through the WiFi zones in a camp and a 14-year-old boy who is traveling alone is talking joyfully to his mother thousands of miles away.

“Because we are just single men, with the phones we are able to talk to our family members who are all back in Syria and it was only us that made it to flee the war”, Syrian Male, 52 years old.

I often make jokes about how I can’t live without my phone, but for the people I work with in Greece, having a smartphone can be life changing.

Oxfam’s program in Epirus is funded by the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO)

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