Refugees and tech: Scenes from a Greek tragedy

What happens when war, escape and hope intersect in our age of advanced technologies? We traveled to Greece and found out.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Richard Nieva
Ben Fox Rubin
12 min read

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

Most people think of Greece as a great place to escape from the stress of everyday life. But not to the more than 57,000 people now trapped there.

In 2015, more than 1.1 million refugees and migrants fled war and chaos in the Middle East and Africa to seek shelter in Europe. More than two-thirds of them came through Greece on their way to places like Germany, Sweden and the UK. That changed in March, when an agreement between the EU and Turkey -- combined with nearby countries' decisions to close their borders to migrants -- transformed Greece from an entry point to a dead end.

Yet they still come. Even knowing they face life in limbo, refugees are coming to Greece in increasing numbers, hoping the EU will let them in, according to The Wall Street Journal. They will join thousands of others already living in squalid camps and abandoned buildings, waiting for asylum or a chance to live legally in the EU.

The situation has become even more fraught. This week, a fire burned down the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, the Greek island where most refugees first set foot in Europe last year. The devastation left thousands without a home.

During a 10-day trip in June, we talked to officials, migrants and activists in Athens, Lesvos and Thessaloniki, near the closed border of Macedonia, shutting migrants' way out. Our mission: to see if the technology that many of us use every day -- phones, the internet, messaging apps, social networks -- is helping during this crisis. Or not.

We met people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco and Somalia, all on a journey they hoped would take them to safer and better lives. Everyone (except the children) has a phone. All rely on the internet to learn what's new and important. Facebook is a tool for escape and escapism. Power strips are the new water coolers.

Here are a few of their stories.

Google it

Five men sit around a battered, wooden patio table just outside the gate at Kara Tepe, an official refugee camp on Lesvos. All have their phones plugged into two power strips on top of the table. Smoke wafts from their cigarettes.

Beko Al-Falahi, a 28-year-old from Iraq, tells us he used to work as a US Army translator. He's wearing a camo hat, flip-flops and a shirt that reads, "Grace isn't a little prayer you say before receiving a meal. It's a way of life."


In April, Pope Francis visited migrant detention centers on the Greek island of Lesvos. Beko Al-Falahi shows a photo of the Pope holding his son Tayim.

Richard Nieva

He talks about his wife and son, Tayim, just 35 days old when they crossed the border. Now he's three months old. Al-Falahi says the hardest part of being here is seeing his son cry and not having enough milk to feed him.

But there's been one bright spot. In April, Pope Francis visited Moria, a detention camp a short drive away, and Al-Falahi and his family went to see him. He picks up his phone and shows us a photo of the Pope holding Tayim, just as he's about to give the baby a kiss.

"I feel blessing come to my son," he says.

I ask for a closer look. He hands me the phone, telling me to Google "Vatican photo in Lesbos."

When I get home a week later, I do that. Sure enough, there the photo of Tayim with the Pope -- the first hit on Google Images . -- Richard Nieva

The ghost town

The Eko station in Polykastro, Greece, has all the amenities of your run-of-the-mill gas station. Outside, pumps and picnic tables. Inside, a deli counter, an arcade claw machine full of toys and a minimart that sells snacks and sodas. Adele's "Someone Like You" plays in the background.

But this roadside hub isn't like any of the other 91 Eko stations in Greece. Until last month, it was home to 3,000 migrants in a makeshift refugee camp.

Now it's a ghost town.

The stretch of land just past the gas pumps is deserted, but the signs that it was once a community of sorts remain. Abandoned canvas tents, made with white beams of wood that look like tree branches, were constructed by aid groups. Old camping tents line the road. We walk among sprawling piles of trash bags and old clothes -- a Disney blanket hanging from a fence, empty cans of baby food, packaging from a solar smartphone charger.

There are flies everywhere.


More than 3,000 migrants once lived in a makeshift camp at this Eko station outside Thessaloniki, in northern Greece. Now only abandoned tents remain.

James Martin/CNET

A stout woman named Deseina stands inside the Eko station, near the counter. We ask her about the refugees. "Sit," she says, putting her hand on my shoulder and gesturing toward a table and chairs. I know I'm in for a long tale. Deseina doesn't speak much English, so she goes into the back room to get her colleague Alexa to translate for us. Deseina won't let us take her photo.

The station is just a few kilometers from Idomeni, an unofficial refugee camp near the Macedonian border that was shut down in May. Before that, it had attracted so many refugees -- more than 8,000 when it closed -- that people began looking for other places to live. The camp also had a reputation for being dangerous, very dangerous. Even aid workers were leery of spending the night there.

So throngs of refugees and migrants decided to stop short of Idomeni and set up camp at the gas station. Eko's corporate office didn't respond when we asked them to comment on the unexpected guests.

Watch this: Life, Disrupted: Tech and the refugee crisis

"It was no problem," Deseina says through her translator. "They were our friends. I can almost say family."

Deseina, who has managed the Eko station for four years, told her staff of 20 or so to welcome the refugees instead of shooing them away. But that doesn't mean life was easy.

I'd met Ismail Bnaoe earlier in Athens when he was living in an abandoned hotel, now called City Plaza. Before ending up at City Plaza, the 23-year-old from Damascus had lived in Idomeni, working as a cook. He told me about visiting the Eko station. "Really bad," he says.

Enlarge Image
Ian Sherr/CNET

Refugees would sometimes get into fights. Was there ever stealing? "Yes, of course!" says Deseina. "Many children. They take things and run. We run behind them!" The people living there stole mostly candy or cigarettes.

But it's not like the Eko crew didn't benefit from the steady stream of customers. After leaving the Eko station, we learned that refugees bought food and other supplies. And according to one aid group, management charged 4 euros (or about $4.50) for a 15-minute shower, and 1 euro to charge a phone. That last fact alone underscores the importance of tech in this crisis.

If you stop to think about it, Eko really is just one big recharging station. -- Richard Nieva

'Can anyone help us?'

A large faded ad for Olympic Airways is plastered on a building at Ellinikon International, Athens' former airport. It's a giant picture of gold-rimmed, circular glasses and it seems like something out of "The Great Gatsby," where an uncannily similar billboard, often interpreted as the eyes of God, overlooks the Valley of Ashes.

The airport closed in 2001 but has since become an unofficial refugee camp. Inside a small blue tent, Saeed Sultani shares his story. He's a goldsmith from Kandahar, Afghanistan, who came to Greece with his wife and 4-year-old daughter four months ago. He points out the squalid conditions.

"You can see. We don't have nothing here," he says. He's dressed nicely, wearing shades and a white button-down shirt tucked into his jeans. His family was a target for the Taliban because they had some money and worked with gold, he tells us. "We were little bit rich -- not a lot, but some."

We finish talking and say our goodbyes. But he stops me before I go.

"Let me ask you something else," he says. "Can anyone help us from this situation?"

"We are here many months. We see many people, many NGOs, many reporters, from everywhere, from every country. They're just coming and asking and...lalala...finished. We don't see any movement, or anything good for us. It's just for reporting or make money from refugees. That's it. They don't do anything. They just make some report, and that's it."

He's right. This is the most covered, tweeted, Facebooked, YouTubed, blogged refugee crisis the world has ever seen. There are 57,000 migrants stranded in Greece.

I don't have an answer for him. -- Richard Nieva

The virtual volunteer

Sofia starts her days bouncing between 20 Facebook groups for people helping refugees in Greece. She sifts through a cacophony of chats and online posts, answering questions, providing news updates and organizing and circulating requests for urgent needs.

She unplugs and goes into "mama mode" from when her 4-year-old daughter returns from school until the child gets tucked into bed. After that, she's on her laptop until 2 in the morning.

Sofia has become an active grassroots organizer for the refugee crisis in Greece, even though the 36-year-old student is 2,000 miles away in Norway. She's part of a network of online coordinators scattered around the world, including in the US, UK and Turkey.

"It's chaotic, multitasking work," she tells me on a video call in June over Facebook Messenger. I can see she wears big, ash-black glasses and red lipstick. "It's impossible to disconnect."

Sofia, who uses a pseudonym to protect herself from anti-immigrant critics in her country, represents a new kind of unofficial aid worker in Europe's refugee crisis: The virtual volunteer, raising funds, coordinating workers and disseminating information from anywhere in the world.

All you need is time, energy and a computer.

Sofia felt the urge to help last fall when she saw images of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey after he'd drowned in the Aegean. The photo, showing a Turkish officer cradling Kurdi in his arms, went viral -- and opened everyone's eyes to Europe's humanitarian crisis.

She started by raising funds through Generosity.com, part of crowdsourcing site Indiegogo, to send a nurse and translator to Greece. She then helped create a grassroots organization called Information Point , which now runs Facebook groups and websites to coordinate independent volunteers and share information. GreeceVol.info, the group's main site, includes a 16-page Google document crash course on volunteering in Greece, with regularly updated bulletins for supply needs and volunteer opportunities. Since February, she's also helped work with the volunteer group Are You Syrious, as well.

Using her social-media connections, Sofia got the word out about a refugee mother and her children who needed to visit a hospital in Greece. Hours later, a driver arrived to pick them up.

"It's impossible to turn my back from this," Sofia tells me. "When you see that your work is having some positive effects and helping one person, one person is enough to keep me going."

It's also a full-time job, one that Sofia embraces with no regrets. "It's a very simple exercise: You just put yourself in their situation." -- Ben Fox Rubin


A view of Lesvos, Greece, that tourists see.

James Martin/CNET

When a phone is more than a phone

Kiki Michailidou hears a lot about pain.

A psychologist for the International Rescue Committee, Michailidou works at a government-run refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, where she talks migrants through depression, anxiety, grief, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

"They've been through lots of distress," she tells me, as we sit at a table under a blue tarp just outside the Kara Tepe camp's front gate. "They used to be people like you and me. They had their lives, they had their homes."

And now?

"They don't have anything. They've left everything behind," she adds. "They've seen horrible things, in their countries and on the way here."

Despite the difficulties of her job, Michailidou, 36, is upbeat and friendly, quick to smile. She tells me why phones have become a critical outlet for refugees, allowing them to find out the latest news and send pictures to family. Many migrants showed me pictures of their former selves, when they had different haircuts and weren't wearing secondhand clothes. In those old photos, they are often smiling.

Earlier during my visit to Lesvos, I met Faisal Nasan Agna, a 47-year-old Vodafone dealer who moved from Syria to Greece in 1990. He now sells SIM cards and and chargers to refugees.

"You know the meaning of the phone for them?" he asks me, sitting at a cantina outside the Moria refugee detention center a short drive from Kara Tepe. "The phone is family, the phone is connections. You can lose everything in your house, but take it with you in your phone." -- Ben Fox Rubin

The fix-it man of Piraeus

Mohammed Ali walks through the faded-red, corrugated steel doors of an abandoned stone-and-brick building overlooking the Aegean Sea along the port of Athens. The inside is dank, dark and stuffed with tents.

Ali, a 26-year-old Syrian, wears a checkered shirt with an open collar and jean shorts. His hair is gelled, his beard closely cropped. He walks slowly between the tents as people living there walk up to him with questions. One man asks about his wife's medical needs. Another asks Ali to help him turn on his dead phone.

Ali greets people warmly, listens patiently and does his best to offer guidance. He speaks carefully when he replies in English, his accent both British and Middle Eastern.

Life is safer but uncertain for Mohammed Ali, 26. "I just want to be at level zero, because here we are before level zero...I was in Syria a number and here I am still a number. I have to be a person."

Life is safer but uncertain for Mohammed Ali, 26. "I just want to be at level zero, because here we are before level zero...I was in Syria a number and here I am still a number. I have to be a person."

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

For months, he's been making rounds like this at the Piraeus port, volunteering as a translator and assistant for those with medical needs, unaccompanied minors and single mothers with children.

I met Ali a few days earlier as he walked around the port on a windy, cloudy June afternoon. (The government evicted people from the area five weeks after our visit, moving hundreds to government-run camps.) We sat on large concrete blocks as he told how he got to Athens. In August 2015, while studying English literature in Damascus, he was targeted by Syrian soldiers for reasons he still doesn't understand. He says he was given 24 hours to leave the city.

He fled to Turkey, taking a bus through territory controlled by the Islamic State. On his way, the terrorist group abducted him, jailed him in a room for two months, made him grow out his beard and memorize jihadist texts. They eventually let him go, but he was abducted again by Kurdish fighters and held for about three weeks, when the Kurds thought his long beard meant he was part of the Islamic State.

Ali says he tried to cross into Turkey eight times but was repelled by gunfire along the border. During one attempt, he tells me, he saw a woman and her baby cut down by sniper fire.

He eventually made it across Turkey then took a dinghy through rough waters to Lesvos. He arrived there in March.

Life is safer in Greece. But Ali is frustrated by his uncertain future or when he might be given asylum, if at all.

"I just want beginning," he says. "I just want to be at level zero, because here we are before level zero...I feel nothing change. Like, I was in Syria a number and here I am still a number. I have to be a person."

-- Ben Fox Rubin

A line out the door

Mytilini's lively tourist hub is a short drive from the detention camps of Kara Tepe and Moria. Boats dock in front of the waterfront plaza, which also hosts a mix of hotels, fresh seafood restaurants and souvenir stands. There's a United Colors of Benetton a few streets down from a fish market and city hall.

Tucked away in one corner is a dealer that specializes in Nokia repairs. It's an essential stop for refugees when they first land on Lesvos.

Last summer, when the migrants started coming to the isle en masse, the shop served 100 refugees a day, says one of its owners, who didn't want us to use her name. "The line was so long, they couldn't enter the shop," she says, through a translator.

The most popular buys: a Samsung 9300i smartphone, which costs 300 euros new, and low-cost phone chargers, the cheapest costing about 5 euros.

Now they get only four or five refugees a week. -- Richard Nieva

A migrant living in an official government camp near Thessaloniki, Greece, opens Google Translate and taps out a few haunting words.

A migrant living in an official government camp near Thessaloniki, Greece, opens Google Translate and taps out a few haunting words.

James Martin/CNET


At Diavata, an official government camp in Thessaloniki, five refugees from Afghanistan sit in a tent built from canvas that's been slung over a tree branch and some metal beams. They came to Diavata after the Greek government shut down the camp at Idomeni in May.

One is eating lunch, a sandwich from a ration box, while another uses a broken sign to fan himself and swat away flies. They want to show us videos from the web about Idomeni, but the Wi-Fi isn't working well. So they disconnect, then try connecting again. The Wi-Fi network is called #NETHOPEFREEWIFI. No password.

One of the men, named Jawad, tells me there are people from several countries here. He picks up his phone and opens Google Translate. He taps out a few words and shows me the screen:

We ran the war came here

-- Richard Nieva

This story was originally published August 6, 2016.
Updated September 3 at 7:42 a.m. PT: Added information about a new wave of refugees and migrants coming to Greece.
Updated September 20 at 1:05 p.m. PT: Added news of a fire burning down the Moria refugee camp.