Mobile phones both curse and blessing for exiled teens

Fahd Ziban sits on a couch he built out of wooden pallets in the Berlin flat he shares with other refugees. Fahd said his father and sister were killed in an attack by government forces in Syria. He and his mom fled to Turkey, after which he traveled to Berlin on his own.

The glass wall of Julia Fath’s office looks out onto the area where students take a 25-minute break between classes. She can watch them on their phones, playing YouTube videos of the war at home or responding to text messages from their families.

Around the time Fath started her job at a school for unaccompanied minors in Berlin she found that one student watched videos of the carnage in his home country from 10 a.m., when he started class, until 12:40 p.m., when he left.

“Sometimes we get the impression that they are not really here, but that their mind is with their parents and their friends back in Syria or Afghanistan,” Fath said.

With the ubiquitous presence of smartphones and social media, young refugees in Berlin can never fully separate themselves from the suffering they left in their home countries, or the cries and wishes of the loved ones they had to leave behind.

On a warm Berlin evening in June, Fahd Ziban, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee, sat in his room across from a wall covered in African masks and a tie-dyed tapestry.

He took a puff from his shisha and held his phone up to his mouth, speaking in rapid Arabic.

“This is my friend in Syria, and he is scared so I am trying to comfort him,” Fahd said. “I don’t want to call him because then I will hear the sounds of the war.”

Janina Herrmann, Fahd’s social worker, said smartphones can be a great tool to connect kids in Berlin, their new home. They use them to share homework assignments and plan events.

In some cases, however, smartphone technology is more of a burden than a blessing. Herrmann used the example of a crisis Fahd went through recently.

Fahd frequently talks to his mom, who has decided to stay in Turkey because it is a Muslim country. Herrmann said Fahd feels responsible for taking care of her and providing her with money, and his failure to do so fills him with despair.

“He said he would never feel like a Berliner and was ready to give up and go back to Turkey to join his mom,” Herrmann said.

Thousands of miles away in Boise, Idaho, young refugees experience similar struggles with smartphones and social media.

The Boise refugee community as a whole is thriving. In April 2016, officials and volunteers from Germany toured the resettlement program there, because it has been so successful.

Prisca Hermene, 15, moved to the U.S. with her family about three years ago. She stays connected to her friends from Uganda mostly through WhatsApp, a messaging and calling platform that works with Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

Her mom limits how often she and her sisters are allowed to talk to their friends. Prisca said even her dad, who is on Facebook, avoids liking photos or accepting friend requests from people in Africa because they are always asking for help or money.

“It’s weird talking to my friends, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, can you help us out or send us money?’”

Even before smartphones, refugees strove to stay in touch with their families back home, but snail mail and expensive international calls made contact less frequent.

Prisca Hermene moved to Boise when she was 12 years old. Before, she had lived most of her life in a refugee camp in Uganda. Her parents fled the war in Congo when she was just a baby. “My mom remembers running from gunfire with me on her back, and worried that she would stop and find me shot or dead,” Prisca said.

Karina Alexanyan, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, moved to the U.S. from Russia in the 1970s when communication with home was very difficult and immigrants created small communities within their new country in order to cope. A researcher of global social media networks and technology, Alexanyan said that immigrants today still struggle in similar ways, but that smartphone technology and social media can exacerbate these struggles, because it frequently reminds them of those still living in their home country.

“There is guilt in that process,” Alexanyan said of immigrants who come from traumatic situations and must leave people behind. “There is added pressure to be happy because you are in this new, enviable place, and yet this new place is difficult.”

Christian Lim, a counselor at Borah High School in Boise, agreed that most students he encounters try to avoid talking to friends and family back home.

Lim said they use their phones like American kids do, to talk to friends and play games.

“They will watch the news, but it is usually something they do at home,” Lim said. “High school is their time away from what they left in their home country.”

With more people sharing images and videos of violence, William Dutton, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University, said all types of media exaggerate the actual degree of violence happening in these places.

“Not being there, they don’t realize it is not as bad as it looks on social media,” he said.

Dutton said there is little research on how communication affects integration of immigrants, but he doubts that their experience was all that different from those born in America.

“It’s the same for us,” he said. “If we see something bad happen in a town where we know people, we want to be able to call them and say, ‘Is everyone okay?’”

Back in Berlin, Fahd sat in the apartment he shares with other unaccompanied minors, twirling his cellphone between his hands. He mentioned that he sees a lot of other teenage refugees watching violent videos and not being able to stop. He doesn’t think they should be regulated or censored.

“You can’t censor the TV, and we see the same stuff there,” Fahd said. “What is happening is a fact. They should know what is going on.” 

Rebecca Keith is a student journalist at the University of Montana. Her sense of adventure and a life of traveling and moving motivated her to choose a career where she could continue to explore elements of the world around her. In addition to a journalism degree, she is studying astronomy and enjoys skiing and ceramics, and hopes to make a career as a freelance journalist after she graduates.