Mohamed al-Refai sells mobile phones at a shop in the market in Za’atari, a sprawling desert refugee camp that houses more than 80,000 people near Jordan’s border with Syria.
Over the roar of one of the generators that are the camp's main source of electricity, al-Refai said he uses Facebook to keep track of the news and WhatsApp to keep track of his family.
“They move from one place to another,” he said. “But when the fighting begins, again they are forced to move to yet another place.”
Many people in the camp say for families separated by war, information and communication are almost as important as food and shelter. Some families, physically torn apart by war, are finding that mobile phone applications are emotionally holding them together.
Tweets from camp
Za’atari is also the first refugee camp to tweet its activities, hoping to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens, according to the camp's U.N. refugee agency spokesman, Nasreddine Touaibia.
“In terms of raising awareness, it is very efficient,” Touaibia said. “We are reaching out to a larger audience and we are targeting people from all walks of life. And we see them interacting with us, asking questions, wanting to find out how is the situation in Za’atari.”
As he flipped through his mobile phone in another phone shop on the camp’s main strip, another young man displayed the news from Syria online. “This,” said Diaa Hamoud, “is the suffering in Syria and the killing.”
Not many people have laptops at the camp, he added, but anyone who can afford it has a smartphone.
The news source of choice for many residents is a refugee-run Za’atari Facebook page that reports what is going on inside the camp and in their neighborhoods at home.
Several pages available
On a dusty street lined with tents and trailers, Mohamad Hamza Refai said the page is one of several locally run Facebook pages that deal exclusively with issues that affect Syrian families in Jordan.
“The Za’atari events page is well-sourced and almost half of the camp follows it,” he said. “There are a few other people in the camp who post news, but their news is not as trusted."
Since the war began more than four years ago, about half the population of Syria has been displaced and hundreds of thousands of people have been killed.
Young people in the camp said they were constantly looking for new apps for their phones to keep track of their families more cheaply and more often. Some said they doubted a Twitter feed would offer much direct relief, but when there is enough electricity to operate mobile phones, social media offer at least a little comfort.
“It’s their only connection to communicate with their families in Syria, and their families here in Jordan,” said Hamoud. “The [Internet] is good in Jordan, but the problem is electricity.”