For these migrants, social media helps ease trip to the West

  • Hamza Hendawi, AP, Molivos, Greece
  • Updated: Sep 10, 2015 16:35 IST
Refugees and migrants arrive on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Reuters Photo)

The 26-year-old Syrian economics graduate knew exactly what to do and where to go.

Amr Zaidah, with the aid of GPS, helped pilot the inflatable boat that brought him and about 30 more migrants to the closest spot to the village of Molivos on Lesbos, one of several Greek islands that have this summer served the tens of thousands of migrants as a first stop on the journey to western Europe.

Molivos, he knew, was where buses were taking migrants to the capital of Lesbos, Mytilene, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the south. The alternative would be a punishing trek on narrow dirt tracks hugging the coast and lined by olive trees, a stretch of highway and a narrow road that cuts through rolling hills.

At Mytilene, Zaidah also knew, he and the eight friends he came with could seek the official document that allows them to continue their journey.

"I have researched our journey for more than two months," said Zaidah, a native of the Syrian city of Aleppo who has worked the past two years as an accountant in Istanbul. "I used social media networks to look into where to go, who is the best smuggler to hire and what stuff we needed for the trip," he said as he had chocolate cake and coffee at a posh seafront cafe, his sneakers still wet from the landing.

"I familiarized myself with weather forecasts, wind patterns and how to avoid being conned out of our money by smugglers."

Zaidah is one of the thousands of mostly young Syrians and Iraqis who have been taking advantage of social media networks and smartphone apps to guide their journey across the sea from Turkey and onward to Western Europe.

On one Facebook group, for example, Syrians and others who already made the trip across the Aegean Sea share the names and telephone numbers of good smugglers in Turkey, warn of pitfalls and give other advice.

Called "al-Mushantateen," a play on the Arabic words for "suitcase" and "diaspora," the group includes posts by volunteers who offer services like calling the coastguard if a passenger on a dinghy sends a distress call. The advice covers the journey beyond Greece to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Western Europe. Zaidah and his group already know which border points they will cross, hotels they can stay in and stores where they can get clothes more suitable for the fall weather as they head north.

The advantages of such groups are evident.

While Zaidah and his friends headed straight to Molivos for the free bus rides, many others set off on the journey to Mytilene on foot under the merciless summer heat and humidity. For families with elderly and children, it can take up to three days to reach the town, unless along the way they happen upon a kind-hearted Greek or NGO worker, who sometimes give families a lift.

Halfway through the walk, the migrants look dazed, dragging their feet up and down one hill after another, taking occasional breaks in the shade on the side of the road. Jouan, a 29-year-old English teacher from Syria, arrived in Mytilene after a 16-hour walk, chafed and exhausted. "No one stopped for me, though they did pick up old people or families," he said Wednesday, speaking on condition he be identified only by his first name to protect family back in Syria.

The social media-savvy among the migrants are constantly on their phones. They line up outside the offices of mobile providers at Mytilene and buy Greek numbers that allow data and roaming elsewhere in Europe so they can connect to the Facebook and WhatsApp apps they use to communicate with others.

Syrian refugees swim towards a beach after abandoning a dinghy with a broken engine on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Reuters Photo)

During the sea journey, which can take up to two hours in good weather, they keep their phones in plastic bags to keep them dry. Landing in Lesbos, chanting, "Thanks be to God," the first thing they do is fish their phones out, joyously hug and take group selfies on the shore. Then with the Turkish signal still strong here, they call loved ones back in Turkey, Syria or Iraq, shouting, "We arrived in Greece!"

But the exhaustive research done by Zaidah and his friends didn't spare them serious hiccups during the early stages of their journey in Turkey.

They and nearly 50 others, including 15 children, got lost in the woods looking for the designated departure point for their boat north of the Turkish coastal city of Izmir. Their Syrian guide couldn't speak Turkish or figure out how to work his GPS. After nearly 12 hours, they stumbled on a departure area - only to discover it was run by a rival smuggler. The Turkish smugglers divide up the coast into territories that they fiercely defend.

The rival smuggler was furious and pulled a gun on one of Zaida's friends, Mohammed Seraj. "He pointed it at my head and said, 'I can kill you now and no one will know, or I can call my coast guards friends who will alert the police to your group and come and arrest you.'"

Seraj, a 25-year-old Syrian, said he profusely apologized to the smuggler before he and his group walked away.

The group finally connected with their own smuggler. They had to spend another night outdoors, sleeping in the rocks on the edge of a farm. Then at dawn, the smuggler made them carry the heavy boxes containing the dinghy and a new engine for it down to the beach, where they had to assemble it as well. The smuggler then left them to pilot the craft themselves.

All along the route, impromptu businesses crop up. In Izmir, shoe shops sell lifejackets, and street hawkers sell plastic bags for wallets and mobile phones, Zaidah and Seraj said. Even floaties are sold for children.

In Lesbos, signs in Arabic have gone up on storefronts. Prices for basic goods like bottled water have gone up. For a while, some Syrians and Iraqis sold forged versions of the documents that all the migrants need to get, for up to 50 euros. But they were put out of business when Greek authorities sped up the process for issuing the real documents, which are free.

Lesbos residents have found another way to profit. Some wait on the coast with binoculars, and as soon as a boat lands, they swoop down in a pickup truck, grab the boat's engine and the dinghy itself or scour through the abandoned lifejackets for the good brands for sale.

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