Jehad cradled his mobile phone in his hand. For the 15-year-old Syrian boy who has been on the move Europe-bound for several weeks, his mobile is one of his most precious belongings.
“I haven’t seen my dad for one year. With this, I can get news from him in Germany. I know how my mother, brother and sister are coping in Jordan,” he said, adding that he used Whatsapp, Facebook and Viber to connect to his family and friends.
I met Jehad recently at a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space near Gevgelija in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. He had stopped for the day after crossing the border from Greece. He was among the 3,000 people who arrive daily, registering their intent to seek asylum in the country. They are given permission to stay for 72 hours in the country during which they must formally apply for refugee status. However, the majority continue their journey to neighbouring Serbia, Hungary and finally to western or northern European countries.
Jehad’s family left Syria fleeing the violence and insecurity for Amman, Jordan where they have been living for the past several years. But caught up in economic distress, they decided to escape and seek new lives in Europe. His father went first. A year later, Jehad left home with his uncle and his teenage friends.
He recounted his harrowing journey in a flimsy rubber dinghy with 60 other people trying to cross the stormy sea from Turkey to Greece.
“It was so scary. We had seven hours in the sea. The boat [was sinking] in the water. All the teenagers jumped in the water and swam. We let the women and children in the boat. We wanted to push them, to push them to the beach. We had to swim in sea to get to the beach.”
It’s another trauma added to the layers that many have already accumulated through the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But still they come.
Noor is a 17-year-old girl also from Syria who is also trying to get “news from home” and “daily life issues” on her mobile. Rather than seeking information on how to get aid, she wanted to know how to continue her studies and get work in Sweden.
She showed me an app called Gherbtna, made by an enterprising Syrian refugee, Mojahid Akil, to help refugees in Turkey facing difficulties obtaining residency and opening bank accounts, to get information on job vacancies or to help people lack of information.
“Turkey is already so full. We had to leave. It would be so useful to have app like this for Sweden,” she said.
Looking wistful, she added, “I wonder if everyone in Europe thinks we are poor people who don’t want to work or earn and only get money from the state. I want to become a computer programmer like my father,” she said. Noor added that she preferred not to be photographed, saying she feared for her mother who is still in Damascus.
Jehad said it will take him only a year to study German and then he can study to become an architect.
Squinting his eyes in the blinding sun, he found his mobile’s screen had gone blank. There was no place to charge his phone. At least, he was able to rest in the shade, drink and eat some bread. The younger children played with toys, engaged in singing and drawing activities. Others received some medical help from the Red Cross. The most common complaints were dehydration, blisters, colds, diarrhea and sunburn. The Reception Centre near Gevgelija will soon be equipped with two bigger UNICEF-supported tents with an enclosed, quiet space for breastfeeding mothers, water bladders, washing facilities and more toilets.
I am in awe of kids like Jehad and Noor. Of their tenacity, resilience and desire to learn. As a UNICEF Communication Specialist, I have talked to many youth leaders and experts on how kids are expressing themselves online through social media channels and increasingly on mobile. Even more than ever, I am acutely aware of how much a mobile phone can be a lifeline for children on the move in addition to their need of protection, healthcare, food, education, shelter and emotional support.
This week, Jehad and I are still in contact via Whatsapp.
“I am in Hungary now for three days. I sleep on the floor but it’s too noisy at the train station. A man is giving us a place to charge our phones. Everyone says it’s impossible to pass through to Germany. But I still have hope.”
Lely Djuhari is a UNICEF Communications Specialist working in the Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of the Independent States.