We sat outside the canteen at base camp in Za'atari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan, sweltering under the unrelenting July sun. Some of us sipped self-consciously on water, as those who were fasting for Ramadan looked elsewhere. "I have 3G!," the young man next to me suddenly exclaimed. We rushed for our phones to test this incredible claim.
"But does it work?"
We knew the answer, but asked (and checked) anyway. Of course it didn't work. There's no 3G, no internet at all, in any of the refugee camps in Jordan.
Power lines crisscross the sky of Za'atari refugee camp, home to some 80,000 Syrian refugees. It has become the fourth largest city in Jordan. Another 55,000 Syrian refugees live in Azraq Camp, surrounded by tall fences and unending desert. Electric poles pierce the sky above the neat lines of caravans, awaiting both street lights and reliable electricity. Driving through these dusty roads, it's easy to forget that as normalized as life appears, it is a far cry from normal. So modern, so pulsing, and yet so disconnected.
One wonders if life in a refugee camp is all that different from treading water—constant motion, just to stay afloat. Boys ride bikes and men push donkey carts down streets they can't leave, passed only by the hallmark white and gray SUVs of humanitarian agencies. Laundry hangs still in the windless air and women walk together to fetch water from community fountains.
The desire to use technology is reflected everywhere too—in the decoration of computer labs, in the art projects created in psycho-social support classes, and the daily presence of youth sitting outside the wire fence around base camp at Zaatari, trying to tap into the wi-fi that NGOs can only use in this limited area.
The debate over internet access in refugee camps reveals messy and unavoidable trade-offs between national security, humanitarian, and long-term development concerns. For some, internet seems like a luxury. At one level, there are so many competing needs within the camp that it seems difficult to justify prioritizing internet.
Internet is also widely perceived to be a threat, as social media has been exploited to recruit new fighters for jihadist groups, spreading terror networks around the world. There's an understandable fear that camps like Zaatari and Azraq would become breeding grounds for terrorists. The easiest way to contain this invisible threat is to cut off its most fundamental pathway: internet access.
The stakes are high for Jordan, a country that has managed to stay stable in a sea of instability. The massive influx of refugees has already strained scarce resources and the social fabric of Jordanian society to its limits. Jordan's pragmatism is what has always kept it safe. Syrians I spoke with seemed to agree.
"Social media is a double-edged sword; use it in the right way," Youssef cautioned. Youssef [last name withheld to protect his identity] lives in Amman and volunteers with an international NGO, helping fellow Syrians. Internet-based apps are his sole means of connecting with his family, who hasn't seen him in two years.
It has become almost axiomatic to say that Syrian refugees consider internet to be as vital to life as food and water. Faced with ever-depleting financial resources, some would rather reduce their food consumption than give up their data plan, report aid workers. It isn't about entertainment, it's about hanging on to whatever hasn't yet been lost to the war.
"All Syrians abroad communicate with those who still in Syria are using mobile applications operating by the internet like Viber , Facebook messenger, and WhatsApp which can be downloaded on iPhone and Android devices. For me I use my Samsung note 5, and I prefer to use Facebook messenger," said Youssef.
"We can from video call feel like we are together in the same house."
Internet access allows refugees to know whether family at home is safe when there's news of an attack. It means knowing whether you have a home or a village to return to someday, insh'Allah, if God wills. Facebook has rapidly become one of the most commonly accessed sources of news.
"Syrians want to know information about their houses, their relatives there. In many cases, we know that someone was dead from [their] Facebook," Youssef added. "Also we know that someone is traveling or someone [comes] out of prisons from Facebook."
Facebook and WhatsApp, and other apps keep scattered families together, reduce anxiety, and are free from the normal costs associated with international calling or texting. For those separated by war, the inability to communicate with loved ones can feel more stifling than unforgiving desert temperatures and camp borders. Just being able to hear a loved one's voice provides some solace to the unending anxiety of exile. The longer the silence, the wider the divide, the deeper the psychological toll.
The value of entertainment that accompanies internet access cannot be entirely discounted either. As I visited the camps, I was struck by the energy found in the computer labs. The children had painted the classroom walls with images of laptops, tech logos, and social media icons. When I'd happen upon a class in session, I'd see children giggling as they slowly pecked at keyboards. As most Syrians are mobile-only internet users, many of these children may never have even sat at a proper computer before.
Computer classes are always oversubscribed. They offer a rare reprieve from the boredom that pervades camp life. Left unattended, that boredom turns to frustration and despondency. Mental health issues, especially depression, are a rising concern in the camps.
Internet access isn't a cure-all, but it is something. It's a means of continuing education, of connection, of keeping hope alive. As a young woman volunteer in one of the educational centers in Azraq pleaded, "They have nothing. It's the minimum we can provide them."
At the end of the day, security concerns run both ways. What threat do encamped Syrians in Jordan pose? At what risks are Syrians who still remain at home? From all sides, there is a search for answers.
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