Last year, while on a trip to Calais’ notorious Jungle refugee camp, British social services worker James Pearce had an idea. No longer did it feel enough to help in person, on a volunteer basis: people were cut off from home, their families, and in many cases the most basic amenities. Something more had to be done.
A year later the group Pearce, 32, founded, has over 32,000 members and 22 administrators. Via Facebook they are giving migrants and refugees something that is often overlooked by outsiders to the migration process: phone credit.
Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced People gives those who are approved by admins £20 ($25) of top-up credit, usually within minutes. For those isolated in a foreign country, it is a necessary connection to home, and to the outside world.
From the beginning, Pearce told Red Herring, it was clear the group would be couched in a Facebook group. “What I didn’t ever intend to happen or really even consider is that it would grow so big,” he said.
“I think with hindsight there probably are better platforms that this could have been hosted on, or maybe there could be in the future,” Pearce added. “But also I think the fact that so many people are here already on Facebook and easily reachable as an audience has been responsible for our success in lots of ways.”
Thousands of migrants have received credit since the project began. Potential donors can donate through MyDonate, PayPal or a simple text message.
The Jungle, at its most populous home to 6,000 migrants–most of whom were looking to resettle in the UK, which is a tunnel away from Calais–was cleared by authorities in October. But hundreds of thousands fleeing war, persecution, famine or seeking a better life realize too soon how precious an asset their phone is amid struggles for food, water and shelter.
Sharif Hasrat is an Afghan refugee seeking asylum in France. He was staying in the Jungle when he heard about Pearce’s group. Yoon Daix, an admin, approved his request to join, and struck up a conversation. “I talked with Yoon and he asked for my IMEA number, my location and a picture of where I live to see if I really need credit or not,” he says.
“He asked me if I have any asylum papers,” Hasrat added. “I showed him that. All his questions were asked in a way that made me impressed to be honest, and at the end Yoon said, ‘So do you need credit?’
“I said yes. He said deal.”
Within 20 minutes Daix had referred Hasrat to another admin, who sent him the £20. It was vital. “Talking to family is something that we feel, we miss and cannot easily place in words,” he said. “But I can say that, in a state or condition where everyone is different–cultures, languages, no family, no work, no money, destitute–then we need our loved ones.
“Talking to my family is the highest energy of my spiritual body,” he added. “Having a phone, and having vouchers at that time, was like a joy.”
Pearce understands this personal touch well. And though he admits he is spending “silly” amounts of time on the project–90 hours a week on top of a 30-plus-hour day job–it fills him with immense pride to offer something so important, so quickly.
“We have children contact us in the middle of attempting some horrifically dangerous journey, or camping somewhere awful, quite often, and you can’t really let yourself step away mentally until you find them a donor and get their phone topped up,” he said. “Contact with family is itself vital for all the people who ask for our help, but for some of them it’s also a massive safety issue for them to not have credit.”
Pearce’s proudest moment came when a seven-year-old Afghan boy was able to save his and others’ lives when they became trapped in a sealed lorry, with oxygen rapidly running out. “As a result of the credit we gave him a week earlier, 15 lives were saved,” he said.
The group’s admins are put through plenty of paces too. Karly Rayner is a Berlin-based writer who joined as one just over a week ago, having begun as a donor. “It is wonderful to know you are contributing to helping some of the most vulnerable members of society access a lifeline,” she said.
“Imagine heading off on a wildly dangerous trip to another country, a journey so hazardous that people have tried to persuade you not to go,” Rayner added. “Now imagine your phone is sitting like a useless brick in your hand, with the tantalizng promise of letting your loved ones know you are safe so near, yet frustratingly far away.
“It is precisely this scenario that thousands of refugees face as they travel to find safety, so when you take your time to empathize and put yourself in their shoes, it’s really not difficult to see how phone credit can transform the refugee experience and offer security.”
Pearce understands the limits of Facebook, and wants to automate more of the process in the future. Perhaps soon, he says, he can help create “some kind of app, like a sort of Tinder for refugee phone credit where donors and refugees can be matched, and a short conversation can take place once a donation has been sent.
“It isn’t just about phone credit, which is of course a vital resource to refugees,” he added. “It’s also about solidarity, coming to know each other by name and character. It’s about refugees not remaining anonymous to the rest of the world so we can begin to care about them properly.”