"Hello, Abu Amar?" crackles a voice through a smartphone speaker. It belongs to a man about 1,800 miles away from where we are, on a beach near Izmir, Turkey. He wants to know the best time to attempt a crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos. He says his group consists of 39 people, including women and children—their rubber dinghy is ready to go. He sends their coordinates via WhatsApp. Lesbos is only a few miles off the Turkish coast but the Mediterranean is dominated by autumn storms this time of year. Within seconds, Abu Amar checks the wind and wave forecast on another app. "Looks good for tonight. Get going once it's dark and send me your new coordinates," he says. There's silence on the other end for a moment and then the caller says, "Stay with us, Abu Amar, please stay with us."
Mohammed Abu Amar, 31, was born and raised in Damascus. He's married, has two small children, and is a plasterer by trade. Recently, he's also become a sort of emergency call center for Syrian refugees trying to get to Northern Europe by means of the West Balkan route. He's the first person they contact when in need of instructions. One of his two smartphones rings nearly every second and on the other end, people who have been on the road for weeks sometimes, ask him for help.
As he directs refugees through the West Balkans on a daily basis, Abu Amar lies in a hospital bed in Elmshorn—a little city north of Hamburg. The Syrian civil war reached the capital Damascus in early December, 2012. Abu Amar was on his way to work when a tank shell hit an apartment building next to him. The Syrian army had started shelling his neighborhood, which was a rebel stronghold. A piece of shrapnel hit Abu Amar's spine, injuring his spinal cord. He's been unable to move his legs ever since. That was almost three years ago. A doctor in Damascus removed the piece of shrapnel back then and recommended that Abu Amar go to Europe—nobody could help him any further in Syria.
His own escape from Syria first got him and his family to Egypt, from where his wife, his mother, both of his young children, and himself—sitting in a wheelchair—tried to get to Italy by boat. However they were stopped by the Egyptian police while still on the beach and his whole family was thrown in jail for two weeks. After they got out, the Egyptian authorities gave them an ultimatum: They could either return to Syria or they would be taken to a refugee camp in Turkey. They decided on the camp in Turkey.
By June 2013, he and his family had arrived in Turkey. "At the camp, I heard stories about refugees who had been robbed in the Balkans," Abu Amar recalls. He heard about women being raped by traffickers or being held captive by them and forced into prostitution. The traffickers were also demanding thousands of euros in order to move refugees. So he started studying maps, tracing the smugglers' movements. He started reading about earlier refugee routes used by Afghanis and Iraqis and discovered faster and safer paths. Then he opened his first Facebook group, where he would post maps with favorable migrant routes.
There's another call: a man just crossed the border between Greece and Macedonia overnight with his group and wants to know which way they should go next. Abu Amar looks up the next city with a bus connection. "In Gevgelija there are busses to Skopje. From there you can continue to Serbia." He posts the co-ordinates of the unguarded patch of border in his Facebook groups for subsequent refugees.
Abu Amar's refugee help network functions virally. He reaches about 35,000 people with his private Facebook groups, 'Fleeing and Migration Without Smugglers' and 'The Marine Organisation for Saving and Helping.' His personal page has over 7,000 likes. His telephone numbers are spread among Syrian refugees in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey by word of mouth. And since hardly anybody migrates alone, each of his callers also comes with a group of people, which increases the number of people he reaches exponentially. He has several WhatsApp groups with hundreds of people in them. They're sorted according to the various stations on the migration route. His WhatsApp has 2,074 unread messages. But even though many Syrians know who he is, he was totally unknown in the West until his name came up in a refugee's story printed in The New Yorker.
The idea behind his operation is to give refugees on the West Balkan route a platform for self-organization, as a means of reducing their reliance on human traffickers. His platforms share information concerning European asylum politics, unguarded border stretches, coast guard patrols, hostels that take in refugees, smugglers, bus routes, prices for crossings, and weather. No matter whether you are on a Greek island in the Aegean, in the forests of Macedonia, a Serbian country road, or a city in Hungary, Abu Amar will always have advice for you.
"Two days ago I got a call in the middle of the night from a boat that had lost its course on the way to Greece and was slowly filling with water," recalls Abu Amar while playing a recording of the desperate woman on his phone. He had her send him their coordinates and then sent a text he translated on Google Translate to the Greek coast guard via WhatsApp. At three in the morning he received a message in his hospital bed in Elmshorn: Everyone had been saved.
Migration might be an ancient phenomenon, but social media has fundamentally revolutionized modern refugee and migrant movement. The beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2011 was of course largely set in motion through Facebook, Twitter, and other similar platforms. Rianne Dekker and Godfried Engbersen, sociologists at Rotterdam University, wrote in 2012 that social media would "actively change migration networks and, in doing so, lower the inhibition level of potential migrants." Thanks to the internet, people in war-torn areas would be more prone to the long, dangerous journey because they could remain in contact with loved ones at home and organize into large virtual groups.
Abu Amar's community grew so quickly that it became a threat to established smugglers. Traffickers in Turkey asked around for his address and sent him death threats. Naked pictures were posted on his Facebook pages countless times in an attempt to get Facebook to freeze them.
He doesn't know how many people he's helped on their journey north over the past two and a half years. He reckons he communicates with one or two groups per day, each made up of 20 to 30 people. On top of that are the people who spontaneously pull information from his pages. There must be tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.
His phone rings again. "We're in Belgrade at the bus stop. Which bus should we take?" a voice on the other end asks. Abu Amar doesn't need to look it up; he's memorized most of the bus connections. He recommends they take a bus to Zagreb and from there further on to Austria. The way through Hungary has become a dead end for Syrian refugees since the local right-wing populist government begun to seal off their country with border fences. "Germany and Sweden are the most desirable destinations, everyone wants to get there," the migrant helper explains.
He never traversed the West Balkan route himself. After two years in the Turkish refugee camp, this summer he and his family decided to attempt another crossing by boat. They managed to reach Greece and from there they flew to Germany with counterfeit passports they bought from a Greek trafficker for 13,000 euros [$14,000]. He says he got the passports for cheaper than usual because the trafficker had sympathy for the young father in a wheelchair. He never wanted to leave Syria as the majority of his family is still there but he hopes that in Germany he'll be able to get the treatment he needs to be able to walk again.
Even though he's been there for almost four weeks now, his hospital room is spartanly decorated. A copy of the Koran, a prayer rug and shrink-wrapped dates make up his personal belongings. He can't eat the hospital food, he says, but his wife brings him homemade food daily. She and their six- and seven-year-old children were given a small apartment in Elmshorn and visit him every day.
Abu Amar says he hasn't slept through a night for a long time. His phones ring off the hook and he is responsible for so many lives. "When someone calls you and says they're about to drown, you can't just hang up." There are deaths every month. Once, he got a message from a boat in the Aegean but couldn't reach the caller back—he doesn't know what happened to the people on it to this day. However, he doesn't have time to reflect on such tragedies, as new enquiries keep coming in.
He would really like to be concentrating on his recovery and he might be able to do so soon, as more helps comes in from international aid organisations and projects like the Watch The Med alarm phone, that supports refugees on boats across the entire Mediterranean. Yet, none of them are comparable to Abu Amar's widely ramified network.
The autumn wind was blowing yellow leaves by the hospital window at nightfall as we bid farewell to Abu Amar. Thirty-nine people were getting into a rubber dinghy on a beach near Izmir in Turkey. The winds were favourable to make the crossing. Abu Amar is with them. He will notify the Greek coast guard soon. But not too soon—otherwise there's the chance they will be sent back to Turkey.