Saving refugees’ lives, one top-up at a time

Lydia Noon reports on a Facebook group whose members connect displaced people to their families.

A refugee helper and a refugee overcome language barriers by using their mobile phones. G. Kraftschik under a Creative Commons Licence

A funding shortfall

‘When I arrived in Belgium, I had $134 in my pocket’, explains 29-year-old Aziz Zazatir, via his smartphone. ‘I bought shoes and a jacket because it was cold and some food. I had enough money for phone credit for four or five months, but then I ran out and couldn’t top-up my phone for the next five months’.

A former assistant for a member of the Afghan parliament, Aziz has been away from home for a year and has lived in a Belgium refugee camp for 10 months. In May, he learnt about the Facebook group, Phone credit for refugees and displaced people, through a volunteer. After requesting credit on the group’s Facebook wall, Aziz was finally able to contact his family who live in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.

‘My family were so worried about me because they didn’t know that Europe is different from Afghanistan. I was hopeless because I didn’t have any credit. By the group’s help I gave a message to my family that I am out of money but safe. They are good and I am happy.’

Good news travels fast

Mohammad likes to keep updated with Syrian news reports.

Phone credit for displaced people and refugees

These stories are what keep volunteer administrators of the page going. The group launched on 1 February and word quickly spread that strangers on Facebook were donating credit to help those stuck in Europe’s refugee camps. Strangers who understand that talking to family and friends, using GPS, accessing legal advice, keeping up with news back home, communicating via translation apps and relieving boredom is vital for refugees’ physical and mental health.

The idea for the group was born after numerous trips to Calais refugee camp in northern France, says support worker James Pearce, who co-manages the group with Rhian Prescott, a mum and part-time trainee account. He first visited the camp in November and was horrified by the conditions that men, women and children were living in. When he couldn’t visit the camp for two months earlier in the year he came up with ideas to help from afar. Having already bought a couple of top ups for friends he’d made in Calais, the phone credit idea was an afterthought when other ideas became impossible to implement.

In almost six months the closed Facebook group has grown to over 11,000 members and become a registered charity. Some 1,500 members are refugees and the others are trusted friends and contacts, added by people already in the group. Members have helped more than 1,800 people, including 227 unaccompanied children, and bought over 2,400 top-ups totalling $67,725 in donations.

The people receiving help are mostly refugees in Europe, apart from two refugees in Turkey, a British homeless person and a young person in care.

But as requests for credit have increased, so have the responsibilities involved in managing the group. It is difficult making sure people who request credit are refugees and are not receiving more than their fare share of credit, says James. And then there is the emotional involvement. ‘People have sad stories and they’re feeling shit. You end up being an agony aunt to some of them’, he adds.

Making small miracles happen

A handful of other admins share the group workload with Rhian and James. But the unpaid role isn’t for everyone. Just a few of the duties include checking new group members’ profiles, verifying requests, taking and logging requests in a spreadsheet, responding to offers, fundraising and problem solving. ‘Essentially making a small miracle happen each day with the help and support of a lot of very kind people’, writes James on the Facebook page in an appeal for help.

Each person who requests credit receives $28 as a monthly top-up, but they cannot ask for it more than once a month. Members can respond to an individual request or donate via Paypal or the group’s MyDonate page where admins resolve requests based on who has been waiting the longest.

‘It’s more than a full time job’, admits James who lives near Norwich. ‘It’s easily eight hours a day for Rhian and I, seven days a week. We do take days off occasionally’.

A lifeline for unaccompanied children

Ahmed, a 7-year-old boy from Afghanistan, texted for help when the lorry he was in with 15 other people ran out of oxygen after it reached the UK.

Cartoon Kate

For unaccompanied minors, the group is often the only safety net they have. During the demolition of half of Calais refugee camp in March, volunteers tried to make sure every child on their own had a topped-up phone, with numbers of people they could call. During the chaos, 129 children went missing and volunteers reported that people traffickers were hanging around the edges of the camp for a week afterwards, explains James. ‘It’s really frightening and phone credit is a massively inadequate response, but it is something’.

Ahmed, a 7-year-old boy from Afghanistan, is now famous for texting for help when the lorry he was in with 15 other people ran out of oxygen after it reached the UK. Lesser known is that this Facebook group bought credit for him the week before, enabling him to send his urgent message. ‘For him it was life or death’, says James. ‘I think it is for many actually’.

Smartphones also offer a social and emotional safety net. ‘In Calais camp, many people have showed me photos from back home and of their journey’, says member and art student Angharad Graham, who recently launched a public Facebook sister page for the group. ‘With the language barrier, phones have made such a difference in being able to understand refugees’ stories. It strengthens the human connection and relation to one another. To me, social media, smartphones and internet access help to keep people equal’.

A funding shortfall

Topped-up smartphones may be as much of a necessity for refugees as food and shelter, but aid agencies do not recognize this, yet. On 15 June, there were more than 100 people in the Facebook group waiting for credit; a shortfall of $2,950. Social media may have the capacity to reach people all over the world, including those who are not able to volunteer on the frontline, but there is a growing need for donations and admins are struggling. It is a problem shared by many grassroots organizations working with refugees: volunteer-led and reliant on the generosity of a small pool of people.

Zein uses his phone to speak to his mum.

Phone credit for displaced people and refugees

‘The most difficult thing’, posts Rhian to the page, ‘is not knowing when we’re going to be able to provide credit and getting messages saying “I post but no-one help”, “I’m waiting to talk to my family, please help”.’

Members are constantly coming up with new ideas to generate more money. They take part in ‘donations conga’, usually on a Friday, hunt around their homes scooping up loose change to donate while encouraging others to do the same. Recently volunteers have been contacting celebrities on social media asking them to retweet and share messages about the group. Others have started a Twitter account, are designing flyers and posters, are searching for sponsors and have begun setting up direct debits, because regular funds are vital.

The solidarity and mobilization that has been generated from members toward the organizers and between refugees and donors is at the heart of this group, and will hopefully be what ensures it continues.

‘I swear if I tell people in Afghanistan that some good people send me money for credit on Facebook they will never believe me,’ says Aziz. ‘I can’t express my happiness by words for the group’s credit help. They are struggling for us, so we will, for sure, be with them for any help that we can.’