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“This Phone Was More Important Than My Soul”

Refugee stories as told through their smartphones

“This Phone Was More Important Than My Soul”

These days, our phones are a reflection of who we are. We carry music on them as well as photographs of our loved ones. We use them to find our way, to connect with friends and keep up to date with what is going on in the world.

For many of the world’s 65 million refugees who are displaced by war or persecution, a phone is a lifeline. Photos of loved ones may be all they have left. Navigation becomes a matter of safety. They each help tell a story.

This was captured by photographer Grey Hutton, who met over three dozen refugees from North Africa and the Middle East at the LaGeSo refugee centre in Berlin for VICE Germany. Hutton has worked on various refugee photography projects in the past, and says he was motivated in this instance to combat some of the criticisms put to refugees for having smartphones. “Many of those who oppose mass immigration… have singled out this particular piece of technology and used it to say, “Look – these people have snazzy phones, therefore they must have loads of money, so why are they coming here,” he said. “This opinion, is objectively ludicrous.”

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What Hutton found was that for many refugees, their phones became an important lifeline during their treacherous journeys. Hutton worked with an Arabic translator and began documenting the stories of those at the centre. Unable to take photographs of the refugees’ faces for legal reasons, Hutton asked the refugees to show their phones and explain the stories behind them.

“I wanted to allow others to connect with some of the difficult stories refugees share, but through this everyday item that they can hopefully relate to,” he says. The refugees explained how their phones helped many of them escape – navigating with Google maps, or using vocabulary apps to help communicate with rescue authorities. “I used the GPS to help navigate the boat to Greece, but only during the day,” shares one refugee. “At night the police might see the lights.”

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Others showed photos of loved ones rescued, others left behind. “This is my daughter who’s still in Syria,” shares one man. “We chat every day, morning and evening”

The refugees often face a long wait to apply for asylum. Some expressed a desire to return home once it was safe; others were looking forward to a fresh start in Germany. One man shows a picture of the plane wing on his arrival to Germany, “Since I got my visa, I have put this picture on my phone. To me the picture is symbolic of my travel.”

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You can find out more about Grey Hutton and his work from his website here

All images courtesy of the artist.

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