January 10, 2017–Ahmed, age 7, and his older brother, snuck into the back of the refrigerated truck. Since fleeing Afghanistan, they had climbed over mountains and gone without food as they traveled through Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. They had floated on a plastic boat in the Aegean Sea and kept going until they reached “the Jungle,” a refugee encampment in Calais, France. Now, it was April 2016, and the two boys began the final step in their journey.
As the refrigerated truck drove north to England, Ahmed and his companions began to run out of oxygen. They tried to open the truck’s door, but it was stuck. They banged on the walls. Frantic, Ahmed found his cell phone and texted a message.
In New York City, Liz Clegg picked up her phone. Earlier in the year, Clegg, a volunteer in Calais, had given out cell phones, put her number in the phones, and told children, including Ahmed, to call if they ever needed help. When she got Ahmed’s text, Clegg was at a conference about the European refugee crisis. She called Tanya Freedman, her colleague at Help Refugees, a London charity. Freedman called the police. Using the GPS in Ahmed’s phone, the police found the truck at a rest stop, broke open the door, and rescued everyone on board.
Ahmed had a phone because of Liz Clegg. The phone worked, because of James Pearce.
Five months before Ahmed and his companions almost died trying to get to England, James Pearce, 32, of Wynmondham, made his own trip. He and 14 friends rented a minivan and drove to Calais for the weekend. They were shocked by what they saw. Refugees were sleeping outside with no tents. Children with missing limbs walked around with nobody looking after them. The police were tear gassing people. None of the international organizations was there, just volunteers like Pearce and his friends. He says, “It was awful, unimaginable.”
Of the 15 people who drove with Pearce to Calais that weekend, every single person returned. Three moved to France to work with refugees full-time. Pearce says, “Everybody who saw it ended up going back. You don’t expect that kind of thing to happen so close to home.”
Each time Pearce returned to volunteer at the Calais camp, people asked if he could bring a ‘top up voucher.’ Top up vouchers are tickets worth 20 Euros. Each voucher provides a month’s worth of cell phone minutes.
“It’s what everyone asked for, as much as food or clothing,” Pearce says.
After delivering a few vouchers, Pearce got on his computer to see if he could arrange phone “top ups” via the Internet. It turned out he could. In February 2016, he created a small Facebook group and asked a few friends to donate money. He told people in Calais to post on the site whenever they needed monthly minutes.
In April, Pearce “topped up” Ahmed’s phone one week before the boy and his brother got into the refrigerated truck.
Today, ten months after it launched, Pearce’s Facebook group, “Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced Persons,” has done 13,782 “top ups” for refugees throughout Europe.
“I set it up for my friends in Calais, but my friends have friends. Their friends have friends, and now we’re here,” says Pearce, who says he spends all of his free time organizing the phone project, despite his parents’ complaints that he is “obsessed.”
Six volunteers help Pearce track and verify requests. To get cell phone minutes, a refugee must post a request on the Facebook site. Most posts are in English,; some are in Arabic. Pearce, or one of his assistants, contacts posters, asking them to photograph their hands and include an image of their refugee camp in the background. With this information and GPS, Pearce determines the veracity of requests. Thirty two thousand people have joined the Facebook group. Pearce estimates that one-third of the members have asked for credit, one-third are donors, and one-third are just following the group.
On trips to France, Pearson shoots video of refugees explaining why cell phone minutes are so important. People tell him phones are their contact to the outside world. They use phones to connect with their families and to find out what is happening with the war in Aleppo. They get asylum information and find resources. Occasionally, they upload videos of bad conditions or police brutality.
Unaccompanied minors are less likely to disappear if they have cell phones and minutes, says Pearce. When Ahmed’s story was first reported in Europe, Pearce’s Facebook page received a surge in donations, but his effort is still entirely volunteer run.
“I literally didn’t plan to do it,” he says. “I haven’t washed my car in a year. I don’t shave or shower when I want. But either you close your Facebook and run away or try to answer. I can’t step away. You get messages like ’Please I am a 12-year-old sharing space with an adult I don’t trust.’ You get stuff that keeps you up all night.”
Ahmed lives in Birmingham with his brother, and their asylum case is pending.
People can learn more about Help Refugees and find a link to donate cell phone minutes at: www.helprefugees.org.uk.
For Britain’s Channel 4 interview with Ahmed, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9B8xiLP38zw