When her son was assaulted, Nour, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, did not know where to go for help – so she turned to Facebook.
Her first point of contact was “I am a Syrian in Lebanon,” a Facebook group that has been helping to answer a wide range of questions for Syrian refugees who live in exile in Lebanon, their lives turned upside down by conflict.
“The Facebook page has been a real help to me and my family,” said Nour. “The information provided… is accurate and correct.”
Since it was set up two years ago, it has become a one-stop shop for information for refugees wanting help with topics ranging from how to report abuse to accessing the services and assistance provided by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners.
It is the brainchild of Oum Nidal, 45, herself a Syrian who fled the bombing in Homs with her husband and four children in 2012. Most days she now puts in a 16-hour shift helping out others on her smartphone.
“My objective is to reach those in need of information or support,” Oum Nidal said in an interview at the office of Caritas, a non-profit at work in Saida, in southern Lebanon. “I want to make sure the community remains strong and united.”
“When we return to Syria, we need to rebuild,” she added. “We can’t do that if we are weak or depressed. I want to make sure the people don’t feel hopeless.”
Driven to help her community directly, she started volunteering with Caritas, conducting outreach visits to refugees. Sensing a lack of awareness and a need to reach more people, she opted to start the Facebook group. It now has about 30,000 members and receives over 200 questions daily.
While it is a small number compared to the more than one million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, the online community’s impact is significant. Hanaa Barbar, the coordinator at Caritas, said its popularity showed “its importance for the Syrian community – as an opportunity to meet in one place despite the distances between people.”
An increase in smartphone uptake has also helped to give the page its moment. A recent UNHCR survey of almost 2,000 refugees in Lebanon found the number with access to a mobile phone had grown to 92 per cent, up from 54 per cent when they lived in Syria. Those with access to the internet climbed to 75 per cent from 10 per cent.
The Facebook group now receives so many posts, comments and questions that Oum Nidal created a weekly sectoral focus on Saturdays to streamline comments, questions and replies. A recent example was child labour.
Having seen the potential, UNHCR publicized it via its Communication with Communities program, which informs refugees about support and services via channels or “trees,” including WhatsApp and Facebook. Indeed, data from Oum Nidal’s Facebook group now informs the program’s own analysis. And Oum Ali shares information from the program’s website with the Facebook group. With a nudge from UNHCR, the group’s membership has multiplied, helped also by word of mouth.
The most frequent question posed is about residency permits, then resettlement, food, cash assistance, health, education, livelihood and housing. Responses are drawn from official sources and past experience. Oum Nidal has been trained by UNHCR in counselling and its programs like protection.
Personal and sensitive submissions – for example allegations of abuse – remain in private mode and are referred to support services. “Yesterday, I got a message from someone who said they’d received a direct threat that their daughter would be killed,” Oum Nidal said. “I provided them with the UNHCR protection hotline number.”
Recently, the Facebook group was informed about four missing children within a week. All cases were flagged to support services; two of the children had been found at the time of the interview. In cases of missing children, information and alerts are immediately posted. The group also tries to educate parents on welfare and scrutiny.
Given the vulnerabilities and hardships in the refugee community, there is understandably little place for humor on the page. But occasionally it creeps in, through posts on sport, especially football.
“Most of the time I have to be neutral,” Oum Nidal said. “But most followers on the sports forum support Real Madrid. I sometimes joke that I will remove them – because I follow Barcelona!”