‘Even once they find freedom, an endless maze of legal issues and language barriers stand in any immigrant’s way. One refugee coder is building the tools to break down those walls’ David Lapska wrote in Narrative .
When the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began five years ago, Mojahed Akil was a computer science student in Aleppo. Taking to the streets one day to protest with friends, he was arrested, flown to Damascus, beaten, and tortured. “They punched me over and over. They strapped my wrists to the ceiling and stretched my body as far as it could go,” the 26-year-old said calmly during a recent interview in the offices of his small tech firm in Gaziantep, Turkey, some 25 miles from the Syrian border. “This is very normal.”
Akil’s father, a businessman, paid the regime to release his son, who fled to Turkey. There, he ran into a massive language barrier. “I don’t know Turkish, and Turks don’t speak English or Arabic,” he recalled. “I had difficulty talking to Turkish people, understanding what to do, the legal requirements for Syrians.”
While working for a Turkish tech firm, Akil learned how to program for mobile phones, and decided to make a smartphone app to help Syrians get all the information they need to build new lives in Turkey. In early 2014, he and a friend launched Gherbtna, named for an Arabic word referring to the loneliness of foreign
As part of its recently finalized deal with the European Union (EU), Turkey has begun to stanch the flow of migrants across the Aegean Sea. But the reason so many of the more than three million Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and other refugees in Turkey had seen fit to crowd onto those dangerous rubber boats to cross into Europe is that, for the majority, their lives in Turkey had been rather desperate: hard, infrequent, and low-paid work; limited access to education; crowded housing; a language divide; and uncertain legal status.
The rest fend for themselves, mostly in big cities. Now that they look set to stay in Turkey for some time, their need to settle and build stable, secure lives is much more acute. This may explain why downloads of Gherbtna more than doubled in the past six months. “We started this project to help people, and when we have reached all Syrian refugees, to help them find jobs, housing, whatever they need to build a new life in Turkey, then we have achieved our goal,” said Akil. “Our ultimate dream for Gherbtna is to reach all refugees around the world, and help them.”
Humanity is currently facing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 60 million people forced from their homes. Much has been written about their use of technology – how Google Maps, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other tools have proven invaluable to the displaced and desperate. But helping refugees find their way, connect with family, or read the latest updates about route closings is one thing. Enabling them to grasp minute legal details, find worthwhile jobs and housing, enroll their children in school, and register for visas and benefits when they don’t understand the local tongue is another.
Due to its interpretation of the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, Ankara does not categorize Syrians in Turkey as refugees, nor does it accord them the pursuant rights and advantages. Instead, it has given them the unusual legal status of temporary guests, which means that they cannot apply for asylum and that Turkey can send them back to their countries of origin whenever it likes. What’s more, the laws and processes that apply to Syrians have been less than transparent and have changed several times. Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – government outreach has been minimal. Turkey has spent some $10 billion on refugees, and it distributes Arabic-language brochures at refugee camps and in areas with many Syrian residents. Yet it has created no Arabic-language website, app, or other online tool to communicate the relevant laws, permits, and legal changes to Syrians and other refugees.
One tool has had time to mature. Syrians in Turkey use Facebook to find jobs, housing, friends, restaurants, and interesting events. They use it to read the latest news; learn local laws; find a smuggler; or obtain an ID, a residence visa, or a work permit. Syrians have formed Facebook groups for jobs, for housing, for people from Aleppo or Homs – in each major Turkish city. Iyad Nahaz, a 27-year-old techie from Damascus, moved to Gaziantep early this year and found his apartment and his job as a program development officer for the nonprofit Syrian Forum through Facebook. In March, Ghise Mozaik, a 29-year-old entrepreneur from Aleppo, posted a job ad on Facebook, looking to hire a Syrian programmer for his Gaziantep IT firm. “We got all these resumes in one day,” he said during an interview in his office, picking up an inch-thick manila folder. It says a lot that Gherbtna has more followers on its Facebook page (88,000 as of late April) than app downloads.