By Kelli Hogan
Editor’s Note: Kelli Hogan, a marketing manager at Google, was a member of the 12-person NetHope Team K deployment to Greece and its official mission storyteller.
Drama, Greece — Hussein, 18, his mother, and his 15-year-old brother left Aleppo 4 ½ years ago. That was the last time Hussein saw his friend Lawan. Then this past week, when two refugee camps were moved into a warehouse camp in Drama, the boys experienced an unexpected and welcome reunion.
Friendships are precious in camps, and the two young men spend a lot of time simply hanging out. There’s not much activity here. Hussein (at right in picture above) and Lawan, 19, have smartphones that they’re never without, and rely on the internet. "It's everything,” says Hussein. The internet is how they pass the time and communicate with their families and friends, but getting online requires expensive data packages. Money is in short supply at the camp.
I met Hussein, who was relaxing peacefully in a patch of shade outside of the Drama camp, when the NetHope team arrived to install free Wi-Fi there. Lawan and Hussein were both looking forward to having Wi-Fi up and running. An avid football fan and player — he was a defenseman on a Kurdish team in Syria and often plays football in the camps — Hussein was desperate to find a way to watch the April 23 Real Madrid match against Barcelona. Lawan loves action films and TV shows. YouTube is his go-to resource for getting his fix of action videos.
Most often when they are online, the boys are speaking to their families. Lawan was the last of his family to leave Syria, seven months ago. No one remains there; they’ve all fled to Germany. He is alone in Greece, and if doesn’t speak to them once a day, he cannot sleep at night. Similarly, Hussein uses WhatsApp to regularly talk to his father and older brother in Germany. Hussein, his mother and brother have been accepted to go to Germany, but now they must wait to be informed when they can depart. They have no idea when that day will come.
Waiting and wasted time are shared frustrations among many refugees in Greece. Hussein and Lawan want to be with their families more than anything, but they’re not sure when it will happen, and being disconnected is difficult to bear. They are grateful for the refuge Greece has offered them, and both Lawan and Hussein say that they have great respect for Greek culture and the Greek people. They want to show their appreciation. Lawan has tried to learn some Greek but language resources have not been available in any of the camps he has lived in.
Still, since both young men see Greece as a transit stop, integration here is not a priority. Hussein is focused on Germany and wants to begin a new life there. He has given up on Syria. Lawan, on the other hand, would go back in a heartbeat: “Syria is heaven.” Returning is not an option, however, so he looks forward to Germany. He wants to be with his family. He wants to learn German. He wants to get to work. “I want to do it all,” says Lawan.
The NetHope-led Syrian Refugee Connectivity Alliance was made possible by the support of Cisco, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, The Patterson Foundation and UNHCR.