We talked to the founder of Gherbtna, an innovative news platform for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Mojahed Akil, a Syrian refugee himself, was one of the first programmers who understood how to code humanity out of a humanitarian crisis. Our author talked to him about how Gherbtna is craigslist, Air-bnb, BBC news and Google maps in one – for refugees.
by Annabella Stieren
Q.You are in Gaziantep now where you started Gherbtna three years ago, what was your motivation?
A: Today, we are an NGO who runs a Website and phone application for Syrian refugees. But three years ago I arrived as a refugee myself in Turkey used my skills as a web engineer and build it on my own. Gherbtna is an Arabic word that can best be translated with “the feeling of being foreign, lonely and in exile”. Millions of people who have been displaced because of the conflict in Syria can relate to this emotion. So, my first motivation was to give people information. For example, people come to Turkey and have no idea of the language, the laws, the communication. So we take all the relevant information and news from the municipalities and officials and translate them into Arabic.
Q.Can you give us an example for that?
A: Well for instance you don’t know how to get a residence permit, what you need: two pictures, certificates etc. or how to open a bank account, nobody in the banks speak English or Arabic, so we tell the Syrians which documents they need: passport photos, residence permit etc. and to which bank they should go.
Q.You cannot just go to any bank?
A: No. Lots of banks don’t accept Syrian refugees as costumers. But Asiya Bank is good for instance and the KuveytTurk bank was as well but they have a new law to not accept Syrian customers. So we update this and tell our readers.
Q.Why did they stop?
A: Well because of Paris attacks, obviously. Because now we all are terrorists.
Q.That is important information for all the Syrians in Turkey. But Gherbnta goes beyond just providing news what else do you do?
A: We also have a section called “I need” where you can enter anything, for instance I need a house or a language course. And then we connect them with people who offer such things. There are a lot of Syrian institutions here in Gaziantep for instance who offer language courses. We also have a “Find a job section” where people can advertise a job. For instance a Turkish company looking for someone with experience in accounting.
Q.So it is like craigslist for Syrians in Turkey?
A: Yes, but nicer design. And we have a specific section that is “Ask me” So you can enter your location and send us a direct question. People have difficult questions. We get around 25 requests everyday. For example: I am a Syrian in Egypt but my wife is in Syria and we want to meet in Turkey how can we do it?
Q.And how do you help the refugees then?
A: We have a great network. Of normal people who learned how to speak Turkish like me and who then ask the authorities. They are very helpful
Q.Who are the people that work for you? And how do you make money?
A: We are and NGO, so whenever we get money from funding we try to pay our contributors. But we have three people working for us constantly. It is hard because you need a lot of information and if people leave because they get a “real”, well-paid job we need new people and it takes a lot of time to educate them about all the procedures and contacts. For money, we also rely on Google advertisement. We have 3.000 to 4.000 page visits a day and over 20.000 downloads of the App. On Facebook we have almost 65.000 likes. So we can make nice advertisement.
Q.So what is your plan for the future? What is the next step?
A: Well we want to expand to Europe. Or to inform people who want to go to Europe. For instance we make some articles already about, which documents you need for reuniting your family in Germany. Or about new laws in Denmark, how is the life in the Netherlands or nice projects for refugees in the UK. The problem is we are not experts in these countries so we need a larger network of people on the ground in Europe who understand the languages and the situation.
Q.Would you like to go to Europe yourself?
A: No, I like to stay here. I am needed I know everything here. I am closer to Syria and if the war ends, I will go back home. Inshallah.
*The views mentioned in this interview represent interviewee’s opinions.
About the author: Annabella Stieren is a member of menac and a German multimedia journalist with a background in political science and psychology. She has lived, studied and worked as a freelancer in Istanbul and rainy Northern European cities such as Aarhus (Denmark), Hamburg and Amsterdam. At the moment she is following the routes of refugee children through Europe while finishing her Master in Journalism and Media. She likes to tell the untold stories of the quiet, marginalised parts of our societies and loves to explore new ways of interactive storytelling.