The Role of Media for Refugees

Ra’ed had been listening to TWR’s radio programs for 17 years in his hometown of Mosul, Iraq, which was held by terrorist forces. But then conditions deteriorated in Mosul, and Ra’ed witnessed as the militants swept in and killed many. He was told that he, too, would be killed if he didn’t leave his house and belongings within a day, so he fled the country with his family.

"Smartphones are considered essentials. We even heard stories of refugees who would rather go without food for a couple of days than giving away their smartphones."

Radio is a powerful tool to reach out to people groups and share the love of Christ with them, especially in countries that are considered hostile against Christian worldviews. Radio waves don’t stop at political or geographical borders. Although searching for biblical content on the Internet can be dangerous because of government tracking, listening to Christian radio programs is safe.

But what about refugees? As people like Ra’ed flee from their home countries due to oppression, war or persecution, they no longer have easy access to these radio programs. They are on the move through and to other countries. Is media still valid as a means to reach out to them and speak hope into broken lives?

In our research done this summer, TWR discovered that media is extremely important to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. The goal of this research was to better understand how we can best minister to these people in our role as a Christian media organization. Visiting refugee camps in places like Greece and Italy, we met with people like Ra’ed as well as selected churches and refugee organizations which minister to them. We were eager to study the life issues of these families, individuals and minors who now carry the stigma of being called “refugees.” How can we introduce Jesus to them (or support fleeing Christians) by using media?

An article published by New York Times in August 2015 alluded to the 21st century migrants and their basic needs as human beings. Guess which were the essentials mentioned?

  • Food: Yes, of course!
  • Shelter: Yes, obviously!
  • The third factor can come as a surprise though: Smartphones! Smartphones?

Yes, the title was “A 21st-Century Migrant’s Essentials: Food, Shelter, Smartphone.” Smartphones are considered essentials. We even heard stories of refugees who would rather go without food for a couple of days than giving away their smartphones. What is it that makes the functions of a smartphone an essential tool in a 21st century refugee crisis? Why would a CBC article in September describe the smartphone not as a toy but as a lifeline for Syrian refugees?

Here are some of the most important findings which our studies revealed:

  • Communication: Probably the most obvious function of a smartphone is to communicate with others. A high percentage of refugees come from cultures with very strong family and community ties, not like many of us with a more individualistic attitude. Smartphones allow them to keep these ties alive, communicate with family members – the ones at home as well as the ones that are also on their journey as refugees. This is one of the reasons why some refugee organizations not only provide charging stations for phones but also SIM cards or free WiFi.
  • Pictures: Related to the above, pictures can be taken with the built-in camera. Pictures allow for another way of communication when being sent to family members: “We are still alive!”, “We reached Germany!” etc. Stored pictures have an emotional value as they bring back memories about their homes, relatives and so on.
  • Navigation/GPS: When you are on the move, you need to have directions. Smartphones have a nice function that we know as GPS, the Global Positioning System, which does not only help us in getting from point A to point B, but also helps refugees to navigate from their home countries to the desired destination in Europe.
  • Information & News: Refugees depend on news. They need to know which borders are open, which ones are closed. They want to know if the weather conditions are safe to go on a boat that is supposed to take them from Turkey to Greece. Upon arriving at their destination, they will try to understand what is needed to seek asylum. Hence, the smartphone becomes the gate to often vitally important information.
  • Entertainment: Last but not least, the smartphone can serve as pure entertainment, bridging times of waiting at a closed border, in a refugee camp, etc. Music, games, and other functions help provide temporary distractions.

TWR continues traditional radio ministry into the home countries of refugees, but for the refugees who are coming to Europe, TWR is now getting ready to provide biblical content via an app for smartphones. What does it take to get an app with biblical content that speaks truth into their specific life issues (e.g. trauma, loneliness, disillusionment) and in their language on refugees’ smartphones? We do this in partnership with other ministries – be it other media partners or Christian refugee organizations.

UNHCR entitled one of their Global Trend Reports, “World at War.” The world has never seen so many conflict areas as of today. Numbers of refugees are expected to increase globally. Are we prepared as Christians to partner and minister to them? Media is a powerful kingdom tool in this endeavor.

Article by Dirk Müller, originally published in Vista (Issue 23, January 2016), the quarterly bulletin of research-based information on mission in Europe. Dirk is TWR’s International Director for the European Region, and he is passionate about using media to reach out to refugees in Europe and beyond.