By Molly Welch
Walaa looked relieved when he learned that I was American. In crisply articulated sentences, he said he’d been struggling to communicate with Brits that he’d met during his time in Greece. I tried to assure him that a few pieces of vocabulary aside (“trousers”! “boot!”), the two dialects weren’t so different - and besides, his English was excellent.
He shook his head. “I need to get better at British English. Once we have Wi-Fi!”
Walaa is originally from Jairoud, Syria. I met him at Veria, a camp about an hour north of Thessaloniki, where our NetHope team was based. A former campground sheltered by the Vermio Mountains, it’s a scenic place, with views overlooking the glittering Tripotamos River. Walaa had lived there since leaving Idomeni, a camp on the Greek-Macedonian border where for months, he and other refugees waited in hopes of crossing and continuing their journeys into Europe. In comparison with those bleak conditions, he calls Veria “paradise.”
Walaa told me that while living in Syria, he posted a picture on Facebook speaking out against atrocities perpetrated by the Free Syrian Army. It earned him three months of violent detention, after which he fled the country with his family, first through Turkey and then into Greece. Though they had hoped to cross into Northern Europe, he said he’s just happy to be safe.
But technology has been a positive force in his life since coming to Greece. Walaa’s English, I learn, comes from the Internet.
“I couldn’t find work in Syria, so I started learning English,” he said. “I started in school and then I finished on YouTube here in Greece.” He explained that he used his time in Idomeni to keep practicing. Now, he’s so good that he served as a translator for journalists and aid workers in the camps and was even interviewed on several news outlets. On his phone, he shows me saved videos of the pieces on Chinese television, a Spanish channel, and Arabic outlets like Al Jazeera.
As we talked, the rest of the NetHope team was busy around us, climbing on ladders to install Wi-Fi access points and stringing cables overhead. Walaa said that once the Wi-Fi was installed, he hoped to learn Greek next. “With the Wi-Fi, we now aren’t going to be able to sleep!” he says.
Walaa wasn’t the only refugee I met set on using NetHope WiFi for language learning. I met Samir in Petro Olympo, a former sanatorium turned refugee camp high in the mountains. The camp is solely occupied by Yaziri people, a group from Northern Iraq that has been targeted and persecuted by ISIS. Many Yaziris have fled to neighboring countries and to Europe.
As I walked around the camp with my camera, Samir approached me, hand extended. “English?” he said. Relieved to be able to communicate, I asked where he’d learned the language. He explained that in his three months in Greece, he’d watched videos and read articles to develop his skills; he’d heard NetHope was coming to install Wi-Fi, and he was excited to continue the work once the network was up.
“I can’t stay all my life in the camp, but if I’m here, I want to learn something,” he said. He spent the rest of the morning translating Kurdish to English as I talked to Yaziri refugees throughout the camp.
The ability to make yourself understood is powerful. As they adapt to new contexts in Greece and beyond, connectivity is making it possible for refugees like Walaa and Samir to serve as bridges to their new communities and develop the skills they need for their new lives.
This story is part of an ongoing series commemorating World Refugee Day.