Connection is a central human trait, one of our most vital needs. Feeling connected to a place, looking for connection with others, connecting over shared experiences, hopes and fears. In a world of global migration, connection not only manifests in a direct face-to-face manner but increasingly spans vast geographical distances and time zones, depending more and more on digital communications and social media networks. In this way, connections can form, unfold and be maintained both locally and transnationally.
For all of the newcomers we spoke to in Athens, Berlin and London, keeping connections with their family and friends when travelling to and arriving in a new environment is one of the most essential longings but also one of the most intense challenges. And for people working to support refugees, digital connections can also be a vital source of support, not only for corroborating information but also for emotional well-being.
My family lives in an area in Ethiopia where there is no stable internet connection, so we cannot talk that often. I sometimes send them a picture, although I really don’t like taking pictures of myself. But I do that to show them how I look now, where I spend my time and so on. But to be honest, I mostly use WhatsApp or Facebook to stay in touch with my friends here.
I’ve travelled around Europe, too. I mean the countries I’ve visited as a tourist after getting my residency, not the countries I crossed as a refugee on foot. I have three sisters that live in Sweden. My niece there is dearer to me than all my siblings. She is still too young to have Facebook but we talk every day on Snapchat. She threatens me, ‘don’t you dare not pick up when I call you!’ I speak to my sister maybe once every three months, but I speak to my niece every day.
We depend a lot on Facebook Groups like Mobile Info Team or websites like refugee.info to keep updated on legal processes that affect refugees. There are also helpful WhatsApp groups like ‘Greece Information’ and ‘Athens Coordination’ group. They each have 100+ members and when you post a question generally it gets answered very quickly. The Athens Coordination Group has biweekly meetings for anyone working with a grassroots organization, so there is different information from different points of view and that enables you to get a cohesive perspective, which is nice.
(Megan & Varvara, Athens)
RISKS AND BENEFITS
The possibility for transnational connection via the internet can come with severe emotional confrontations, specifically for people fleeing war and destitution. Some newcomers even told us that they therefore avoided platforms such as Facebook altogether.
I am not active on Facebook and I don’t like social media at all. When I open Facebook, I get all the news from back home, from Syria. It ruins my day. News, news, news. Here he was killed. Here he was beaten. Here he was tortured. Ahhh… Some of my friends from when I was in prison, they have been sentenced to 20 years, others have died under torture. I don’t want to hear about this anymore. I’ve had enough. I get to live, too… to leave it.
People also expressed the great need for local connections – both emotional and physical - in their new urban contexts. Searching for connection, many newcomers find stability in their family, in their friends, in religion and even the mundane everyday moments of interactions. Although language was a significant practical obstacle for some, others stressed the importance of activities and hobbies that helped reconnect with themselves as well as others.
I cry nearly every other day. I think of all that has happened to us and I feel weak. But I believe in God, and I am grateful for my children. They bring so much joy to our lives.
(Tareq family, Athens)
Amneh is a very sociable child. We will be in the park and all of a sudden we see her playing with other children. But we don’t have any friends here. It’s difficult to make friends. Once, we were struggling with the stroller and the children, and a woman who lived in our neighbourhood helped us get on the bus. We got off at the same bus stop so we invited her in for a cup of tea. Then, she showed up a week later with toys for the children.
(Tareq family, Athens)
My German still isn’t fluent two years into the language course, but even early on I managed to start going to the Job Centre alone, without translators, without support. At the beginning when I started working at the café I had to always have a German speaker with me. Now I can handle it all on my own. It makes me proud. I don’t mean it makes me arrogant, just proud of myself for achieving this. But language is still an issue when connecting with people. When I want to have a deep conversation with someone, I feel that I don’t have the words to discuss personal things. I think it is because of the vocabulary, I find it difficult to express myself or talk about myself in German.
In Berlin, the registration centre sent me on a train to Eisenhüttenstadt, a tiny town on the border with Poland. I laugh now when I think about it because I had travelled by trains all the way from Italy without a single penny or identity paper. And in a twist of fate, I again met refugees I had met crossing Libya, in a sports hall in a tiny border town! We’re still in touch actually. It was bad there, we were all sleeping in one big sports hall and I was anxious all the time about my lost documents, about being asked to prove my identity. I wanted to learn German but there were no classes locally, so I found a class to audit for free in Berlin, but it was too expensive to travel. A local family started volunteering at the refugee centre and we became friends and I ended up living with them for one month. They are my second family here and I visit them often.
(Anas & Muhamad, Berlin)
It takes time to be friends with Greek people, which is understandable. Their information is only the news and there are a lot of people coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where wars just go on and on. When people first look at you they will see you as a refugee, not as a sovereign being. Not the person that had a life, with social networks and value in the community. It takes time for people to know who you are, as a person.
I also want to learn English so I can build contacts and make connections and hopefully find a job. It's helpful especially meeting the Arabs who have been here for a long time. We didn’t know anyone when we arrived, just our friends that we had met in Lebanon but they are based in Liverpool. It was nice because they came here to visit over the weekend.
(Ra'ed family, London)
I love football, I grew up with it. We play here on Sundays. We go for walks, ride bikes and learn skateboarding, but I’m not really good at that yet. During the summer, we were going to this café in the park to watch the game. There were so many people and it was a really good atmosphere! I supported the French team — they were just the best, I mean Mbappé?! He did so well.