The Virtual Land of Social Media for Dispersed Syrians
While the previous waves of migration meant a harsh social disconnect and waiting up to two weeks for each letter to arrive by mail, possibly censored by the regime apparatus after the events of the 1980s, today it is much easier to stay connected. This led to virtual public spheres becoming the alternative meeting place for Syrians dispersed all over the world.
Many projects have been launched to substitute and expand the social networks that previously provided support to those living in the same area. The most prominent of these is the Dubarah network. Dubarah is a colloquial Syrian term meaning “managing a solution” in a very improvisational and creative sense.
The network was set up by a small group of young Syrian volunteers as a Facebook page and quickly expanded into a proper non-profit organization registered in Canada, boasting thousands of volunteers in over 30 countries.
On Dubarah, one can find announcements about scholarships, work vacancies, trainings, online tutorials, and even events that bring together the diaspora to share know-how about adapting to the regulations and norms of their new countries.
Salina Abaza, an early volunteer with the network told Syria Untold that the main reason for their growth and success was the “focus on educational and cultural development for Syrians, supporting them in their new communities, and informing them about the available scholarships around the globe.” Furthermore, Dubarah assists Syrians in the complicated process of applying to universities and for scholarships. Occasionally, the network has also raised funds for urgent medical operations.
As for parcels that obviously cannot be sent virtually, social media has also been utilized to capitalize on the geographic dispersion of social networks. Mail services into Syria are currently blocked by many countries and mail that reaches Syria is heavily scrutinized, with corrupt local mail operators often stealing the shipped contents. Therefore, people who need to send valuables and important documents do so by hand using trusted intermediaries.
Those who can still travel into Syria are a rare and valuable resource, due to the travel restrictions many face. Consequently, Facebook groups where members announce their upcoming travel routes and what/how much baggage they are allowed to take along with them have been set up. Those who need to send something also post what it is and to where it should be sent. These groups, however, tend to be smaller and private because of the goods’ values.
Lama, who still lives in Syria, is a member of one of these groups. She works as an interpreter, a profession which regularly requires her to travel abroad. “I got used to announcing my travel date a day or two before the actual date, because I know many people will contact me last minute wanting me to take this or that object along. It became part of my regular travel packing process!” she explained.
Paid delivery services have been set up, such as the Expatriate Mail Group, which is a mail order service that allows you to buy presents for your loved ones in Syria. The client selects the type of gift, and the group administrator confirms its availability on the preferred dates. Payments are made online abroad due to Western sanctions, then group members inside Syria buy the gift from local markets, and deliver it to the doorstep in many Syrian cities. The service covers mainly regime-controlled areas although it operates unofficially.
Carol, a physician currently living in Germany, has used the service in the past. Her family in Homs is unable to visit her due to visa reasons, and she cannot afford to visit them more than once a year, since it makes more sense for her to save the cost of the trip and send them the money.
“A week before mother’s day, I ordered a bouquet and a cake from the Expatriate Mail Group.” remembered Carol, “They confirmed availability but it seems they were overloaded with orders that day. The delivery reached my mother just before midnight, with countless calls for hours back and forth before that. And it was really expensive.
“Still, it somehow became a good deal all the same. We spoke a lot on the phone that day, and she felt the effort I put into it. I still can’t believe she stayed up till midnight waiting for a stranger to deliver my flowers!”
The problem of finding a potential Syrian partner in this geographic dilemma has found controversial solutions in some other Facebook groups.
Umm Ahmad the Matchmaker, for example, has her own Facebook page now. People searching for a spouse send in descriptions of themselves and their hopeful. In their messages, they tend to focus on age, education, job, city of origin, economic status, and residency status and, occasionally, physical traits. Each request is posted by the page administrator and given a number. Those interested contact “Umm Ahmad” via private message referencing the number of the post they are answering to.
Though almost every post on the page has comments ridiculing either the post, or the entire process, the page has almost 14,000 followers, many for the fun of it.
Despite their downsides, social media and virtual communications have become essential for Syrians today They are the only way to stay in touch with the people and communities to which they still feel like they belong. Live broadcast, for example, might soon substitute weddings!
[Main image: The Dubarah logo. The network was set up by a group of young Syrian volunteers as a Facebook page and quickly expanded into a proper non-profit organization registered in Canada, boasting thousands of volunteers in over 30 countries. On Dubarah, one can find announcements about scholarships, work vacancies, trainings, online tutorials, and information about regulations and norms of the Syrian diaspora’s new countries (Dubarah Facebook Page/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].