“Gah, there’s not a damn signal!” Rashed screeched.
We were standing in middle-of-nowhere rural Germany, wandering aimlessly in the dark. It was the late autumn of 2015, and leaves and twigs crunched under his feet. Apart from the harsh blue light of his Samsung screen, everything was pitch black.
Rashed was trying desperately to download a recording of Lulu’s voice. Lulu is his two-year-old niece, who almost convinced him to stay in Istanbul. “Don’t go, don’t go, please don’t go,” she told him, crying, when he squeezed her goodbye. It was the last time they touched before he left his family behind for the harrowing three-week journey to Germany.
Most nights, Rashed stood in the woods outside his new home—an old military dormitory that the German government had transformed into a shelter for newly arrived refugees—desperately looking for a signal. Often he was joined by his friend, Ahmed, who was trying to communicate with Ruseel, his daughter—she was in Istanbul with her mother Laila, brother Ruby, and sister Ravana.
WhatsApp has became a draft room of Syrian history — a diary of identities shed and transformed. I’ve been reporting in the Middle East for more than six years. In the early days of the Egyptian revolution — before deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cut the country’s internet connection — activists would text me their coordinates. When WhatsApp came on the scene a few years later, it became my main tool to communicate with my landlord, my translators, and my sources. Everyone, from the then-leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood to liberal artists, was using WhatsApp.
Online communication is still the base of my reporting, and WhatsApp looms large. I met Rashed and Ahmed when the Syrian-American journalist Dalia Mortada and I began following the story of Salloura, a sweetshop where the two friends worked. A 150-year-old Syrian institution, Salloura migrated along with its patrons when the country became unstable, eventually landing in Germany.
It was on WhatsApp and Facebook that Dalia was able to track down the pair after they left Istanbul. We watched as they hopped on a boat in the seaside town of İzmir for Greece, where they would then spend three weeks on foot, train, bus, and car to Germany. We followed their journey on Facebook, then WhatsApp, from the comfort of our apartments — with our American passports stowed away.
For Rashed and Ahmed, WhatsApp was a lifeline that tied them to the loved ones they left behind. When they got their German SIM cards, their new lives became real—and they were one step closer to rebuilding their family.
Ahmed stood next Rashed in the middle of the German woods that night in 2015, rubbing his hands together for warmth. He showed me a text from his daughter. His eyes were filled with tears. He put the phone in his pocket. He couldn’t even look at it.
👭👫 🚣 🚢 👭👫 🇩🇪 💋
When your four-year-old daughter, who doesn’t know how to write yet, wants to text you, she sends you a string of emojis with an urgent wish: to hop on a boat for Greece with her mother, brother, and sister, and travel to Germany, where one day you will all be together again. WhatsApp bridges the shortest distance back home to Syria.
In Istanbul, Ahmed’s 13-year-old son Ruby had become the family’s breadwinner, working 12-hour days at a shirt factory to help his parents with rent money. His schooling stalled in second grade when his home city of Aleppo devolved into a battlefield.
But it wasn’t all tears in the forest that night, or the nights that followed. Rashed and his two younger brothers, still in Istanbul, often share funny WhatsApp voice notes with raps.
“Yo dude, where you at?” one of them will say, repeating Ahmed’s nickname, Hammoudieh, in rapid succession: “Ha-moo-day Ha-moo-day Ha-moo-day Ha-moo-day Hamoo-day,” he’ll say, turning it into a Pharrell-style beat.
One evening in Istanbul, Dalia and I went to Rashed’s mother’s house for some Erman—a delicious creamy yogurt stew. We sent photos to Rashed.
He replied: 😞😞😞
Rashed’s younger brothers, Maher and Yasser, wanted to reach Europe when the route was open, but didn’t have the money. Now with a new, restrictive EU deal closing borders, it’s not clear they’ll ever make it. WhatsApp is one of the only ways they can stay in touch so intimately.
It’s also how I keep in touch with them. Without the real-time translation of my reporting colleague Dalia, I am often left to my own devices. Literally, my Arabic is stubbornly rudimentary, even after six years of working in the Middle East. Sometimes I have trouble translating, so I defer to emojis to get a point across.
“Why do you like punching so much?” Ahmed once asked, not long after I first met him back in Istanbul.
“Oh no, that’s just a fist-bump,” I tried to explain. “Like, a high-five, like… ‘OK, peace.’”
“Like, keep going?” He began to catch on.
When Ahmed first made the journey from Turkey to Germany, he was fortified by the hope that his wife and kids would join him in a few months. Then, he thought, they would start a new life, one with the trappings of normalcy: school for the children, safe streets to play in, maybe even a park for picnics.
That December, headlines hinted at an impending European Union refugee deal — one that would close the migrant trail through Europe. Finally, Laila and her kids took the bus to İzmir to board a boat to Greece.
Dalia and I met them at the bus station, keeping Ahmed abreast of all the details via WhatsApp. He was nervous and kept sending us the rose emoji. Unsure of what he meant, I decided on its meaning: gratitude, hope, joy. Not happiness, but a deeper, more complex emotion.
While we waited for their midnight bus to arrive, with Laila and the kids in the stale, brightly blue-lit bus station, we blared Katy Perry from my phone and threw a dance party. We took silly selfies and sent them to Ahmed. We could hear him laughing through his audio notes.
In lieu of a boarding announcement, a random man shouted that their bus had arrived. Laila tightly held her daughters’ hands and they walked ahead with their small bags packed with a few changes of clothes and a family copy of the Koran. It had survived their many frantic moves — first out of their Aleppo apartment, then out of their family home in the suburbs, then out of a few Istanbul apartments that became too expensive for them. Ruby lagged behind — a rare family dynamic.
Before we lost sight of him in the sweep of sleepy people, he looked back at Dalia and me one final time. I took out my phone in an attempt to freeze time — to forever frame his face, a fierce spirit of teenage excitement on the eve of a big, uncertain journey, but with those eyes.
It was the screensaver on my phone for months after.
We didn’t have contact with Laila and the children as they traveled from Greece. We were nervous. The water was rough that winter. Many boats didn’t make it. Ahmed kept us posted whenever he received a call from Laila. We sighed in relief when they made in to Greece. We got goosebumps when we heard they arrived in Vienna. We cried when they were reunited in Germany.
About a month after our impromptu Katy Perry dance party in the Istanbul bus station, I received a WhatsApp dispatch: A picture of the family reunited in Germany, after five months apart. It had been five months since Ahmed left Istanbul, and two separate journeys by bus, boat, foot, train, and car. But at least they were back together. zAnd like Ahmed was for so many months — and like their relatives in Syria and those scattered over the Middle East and Europe — I was a button on their phone, in their tiny palms. So immediate, yet so far.
Since then I’ve received selfies of Ruby’s first time touching snow, spaghetti meals eaten at German shopping malls, voice notes that track how much he’s grown. Once a squeaky-voiced little boy, he sounds like a full-grown man. For the first time in my life I understand the slight grief parents feel over losing their little ones.
In the following months, I received dispatches from a still-chilly spring in Germany. An ecstatic voice note accompanied one from Ruby’s sister, five-year-old Ravana:
“Lulu, crazy Lulu … we’re eating ice cream!” ❤️ 🍦 👭👫
I received updates from Ravana’s birthday party in the shelter where they were still staying. One of the Salloura workers, a wizard at making pastries, baked her a cake, etching her name in icing.
The more dispatches I received, the hungrier I was to witness more. I was desperate to see things through their eyes, knowing that I couldn’t, not really. WhatsApp offers the illusion of proximity. It’s not real, but it’s something. It erodes the guilt, a bit — that gnawing journalistic guilt of always wanting to be there, but maintaining a separate life away from the people I’ve met while reporting.
A lot has changed since last year. Last March, the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey to stem migration to Greece. In exchange for billions of dollars in aid and visa liberalization for Turk citizens, Turkey agreed to accept the return of all asylum seekers who traveled through the country en route to Greece.
Critics say the deal has only pushed the humanitarian crisis under the rug. Most of the migrants and refugees who arrived in Greece before the EU-Turkey deal were moved to camps on the Greek mainland, stuck in a sort of purgatory as they wait for relocation in Europe. Those who arrived after are often held in lengthy detention as asylum seekers.
On January 28th, President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending the US refugee program for 120 days, specifically barring Syrian refugees until further notice.
“We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people,” Trump said.
Shortly after, Ruby sent me a string of sad-face emojis.
“I know,” I responded. “I’m sorry.”
As of February, my latest WhatsApp from the family came from Ahmed’s 14-year-old daughter, Ruseel. She asked when I would come to Germany for a Katy Perry concert. Back in Istanbul, the girls and I would have dance parties in their small apartment and just about everywhere. Before they boarded their bus from Istanbul to the Turkish seaside town of İzmir, we stood in a circle in the corner of the small bus station and blared “Roar” from my iPhone.
“Soon, I hope,” I replied, adding a red heart and a unicorn emoji when I really wanted to insert the blue screaming emoji in a vain attempt to articulate my own furor over the state of affairs in the world; over Trump’s red face dominating every television station in America except for The Food Network; over the warehouse of people this war has turned loose in the world.
“Soon, girl,” I wrote back as soon as I could. “Soon, I really hope.”
More Info: www.wired.com