We Asked Some Refugees for the Stories Behind Their Smartphone Backgrounds


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We Asked Some Refugees for the Stories Behind Their Smartphone Backgrounds

"I used the phone's GPS to navigate the boat to Greece. Only during the day, though. At night, the police could see the light."

All photos by Grey Hutton

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

A narrative seems to have emerged around smartphones in the ongoing refugee crisis. Many of those who oppose mass immigration and the opening of European borders to those in need have singled out this particular piece of technology and used it to essentially say: "Look—these people have snazzy phones, therefore they must have loads of money, so why are they coming here?"


This opinion, objectively, is ludicrous. Firstly, you don't need to be loaded to own a phone. Secondly, and most importantly, the reason the majority of refugees currently traipsing through Europe has nothing to do with money; it has to do with the fact that their countries are ravaged by war and their homes have either been destroyed or are uninhabitable.

However, the phone thing is still managing to spread throughout social media in the form of ignorant status updates and hateful (and unfounded) memes.

We asked some refugees who'd recently arrived in Berlin to explain what their phones meant to them. For some, their worth lay in storing photographs of the homes they've lost and the loved ones they've let behind; others were simply using them for practical things like navigating rickety boats towards Europe. Each refugee seemed to connect differently with their phone, but one thing they all had in common was that they were terrified of losing theirs.

Check out more Grey Hutton's work here.

"I chose this background because it reminds me of my mother. I'm 16 years old and this photo is my only way of staying in touch with my family and friends."

"I left my five children in Jordan to come to Germany to find a fresh beginning for us. I brought nothing of importance, only this phone."

"This is a Lebanese pop star called Elissa. During my trip, I couldn't bring myself to listen to music. Now that I'm in Germany, I feel like it again."

"Our phones are extremely important to us." (Somali couple)

"This phone is more important than my soul."

"I took this picture after I got my visa. For me, the photo symbolizes my journey."

"I can stay in contact with everyone through Viber, WhatsApp, and Facebook."

"This is my daughter. She's still in Syria, but we talk every morning, evening, and night."

"This picture was the background on my old phone. I don't know how to transfer it to the new phone my mother gave me. It's a picture of my brother, who was killed by IS. My other brother was killed by Assad's forces."

"This is my four children. The phone was really useful for teaching them a few German words and keeping them busy with games while we were traveling."

"I lost my smartphone in the ocean on the journey. I'm going out buy a new one as soon as I have money."

"We used balloons and tape to protect our phones from the water."

"This is the traditional dress of the Pashtun. It reminds me of where I'm from in Pakistan. Nobody wears jeans there."

"This is the son of one of my friends. The photo was taken in Hamburg at a camp we stayed in. It's a reminder of a great moment."

"I used the GPS to navigate the boat to Greece. Only during the day, though. At night, the police could see the light."

"I'm not sure why, but I love this picture of myself so much."

"We were four Yazidi traveling from Sinja together. It took 50 days. I don't think about how hard the journey was any more because I'm here. If I needed to use Skype or Viber, I'd use a friends phone."

"This is just a standard picture. I don't know how to change it."

"Our group was made up of 25 Syrians. One person was responsible for the GPS, another for the trains, and so on. I had no job."

"I just found this photo on my phone. My friend had his stolen recently. They just came running up behind him and took it."

"The journey would never have been possible without this phone. I used it all the time, both on land and at sea."

"The picture is of my daughter. I love her very much."

"This is a photograph of my wife's mother. She was killed by IS in Libya. I've had this phone for ten years. I only use it for important things, really."

"This is a picture of me and my Christian friend fishing in Kurdistan. It's a nice memory and I like to have it with me."