Lost At Sea And Texting For Help

How a phone signal in the unlikeliest of places helped save the lives of migrants.

10/03/2015 09:10 am ET | Updated Oct 14, 2015

 When the sun rose, Mohamed, a lanky 27-year-old sitting in a dinghy on the Mediterranean Sea, saw the awful truth. All around him, waves swung in sickening time, and there was no land in sight. Packed in with some 50 fellow migrants from his home country of Syria, Mohamed had been tossed by the sea for hours in an inflatable raft meant to hold half as many people. The boat’s engine had fallen off during the night, and they were drifting.

Mohamed, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, reached for his smartphone, one of a pair he had received as a gift from a cousin who suggested he pawn them for cash. The iPhone 5 was wrapped in layers of resealable plastic, Mohamed’s attempt at waterproofing. He now saw something miraculous: a row of dots on the upper left side of its face. Somehow, in the churn of waves, the phone was catching a signal.

It was late August 2015. Mohamed’s fellow migrants in the boat weren’t getting a signal. His good luck was a quirk of telecommunication strategizing. After buying a small power bank for remote charging in Damascus, Mohamed purchased an Internet plan from phone company Turkcell in Izmir, Turkey -- one of several cities he passed through on his journey out of Syria. A Turkcell phone can typically work on the water even if it's as far as 50 kilometers, or approximately 31 miles, from the closest cell tower, a company representative told The Huffington Post. 

At the time he first found coverage, Mohamed felt adrift in a wasteland. In fact, he was only 4 miles from mainland Turkey.



Data coverage is a lifeline for migrants. Though aid workers stemming the crisis of Syrian migration are yet to officially classify it as such, technology has been recognized by those on the ground as a necessity on par with food and warm clothing. Migrants need phones to help navigate between bus stations once they reach land, aid workers say.

Paul Donohoe, press manager at the International Rescue Committee, said the mobile phone has also become a “fundamental” tool in surviving the harrowing water-crossing from Turkey to Greece, which has claimed almost 3,000 lives in 2015 alone, according to the U.N. Human Rights Council. (Some half a million migrants have tried their luck this year, by the same study.) Donohoe, who recently traveled to Lesbos, said Greek coast guard employees have been overwhelmed with calls from migrants stranded at sea and using the communication service WhatsApp.

Having a phone with a camera can mean the difference between life and death. One migrant Donohoe interviewed told an extraordinary story of calling the coast guard from the water. “He was told to take a photo proving that they were on a boat,” Donohoe said. “There’s an expectation of interaction.”  

Apps To The Rescue

With night behind him, Mohamed felt both bolder and more desperate. He thought to use Maps.me, a geolocator that works offline. While the app’s reviews on iTunes are mostly written by honeymooners and other pleasure seekers traveling off the beaten path, perhaps its biggest beneficiaries today are Syrians and Afghans fleeing their countries. According to Mohamed, the app’s coordinate feature, which enables a user to derive his exact latitude and longitude anywhere in the world, has proven critical for migrants he’s met walking the path to German salvation.

On that Thursday morning, Mohamed opened up his browser on the phone. All around him people slept, the smell of vomit overwhelming the boat as waves banged its walls. Mohamed was starting to feel dizzy. The anti-nausea pill he’d taken, a gift from the only other friend he had on board beside his brother -- a Syrian pediatrician named Khaled At -- was wearing off. The doctor, who spoke to HuffPost by phone from Germany, confirmed how seasick everyone had become, with most passengers felled by dehydration. At himself was acutely seasick. He remembers few details from the journey, beyond crying at various points, sure he might never again see his parents and sisters.

Using screenshots provided by Mohamed and his cousin, the Huffington Post recreated their actual conversation at sea, below.

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Mohamed’s plan was extreme: Figure out his exact location and call the Greek police for help, or failing that, the Turkish police to surrender. Jail, he reasoned, was better than death. But when he pulled up a browser to find the numbers, it wouldn’t load. He opened Facebook and found his feed as normal looking as if he were in Damascus. He posted a message on his wall, saying only that he was stuck somewhere between Turkey and Greece. For the next eight minutes he relentlessly shared coordinates derived through Maps.me, posting them on the wall of a private Facebook group only for Syrian migrants, with some 18,000 members. He updated his own wall with the SOS every minute.

Formerly a deejay in Damascus, Mohamed had made friends from all over the world, some of whom were awake by now. A few liked his statuses. Soon dozens were posting underneath them, limiting themselves mostly to the Arabic phrase Allah yusulmak -- “May god keep you in peace.” Mohamed hoped for more. He reasoned that a call placed by a third party to Greek or Turkish officials might well lead to a rescue, given that he could provide coordinates. At 8:08 a.m., he wrote a private message to three cousins in America: a string of coordinates and the English word “Help.” A minute later he messaged his coordinates separately to his cousin Danya Kathleen, a half-Syrian living in Hawaii whom he had met in person only once but whose kindness had made an impression.

He tried Facebook’s phone tool and was amazed to hear a ring at his ear. No response from Danya. It was 13 hours behind in Hawaii, 7 p.m. on a Wednesday. He sent another message to the group of cousins, including Danya and her brother Omar Yasseen in Washington, D.C. Both cousins are referred to here by their first and middle names to protect the family’s identity.

“Heeeeeeeeeelp,” Mohamed’s text to them read. Ten letter Es.

A willowy 28-year-old with deep dimples and hair the color of sand, Danya looks like an ad for the good life in Hawaii. While Mohamed messaged her, she was trying on bikinis at the Rip Curl boutique off Waikiki’s main drag. When she happened to glance at her phone in the dressing room, she suddenly felt a million miles away.

Jake Reeves / The Huffington Post


Within minutes, she was standing at a busy intersection, her phone to her ear. Mohamed picked up. His voice sounded off, like “something you hear in the movies,” Danya would later describe. He begged for help. She asked as many questions as she could. Where are you? Is the boat sinking? Who do I call for help? She tried to reassure him that everything was going to be OK. They were going to save him. Be strong and stay in the boat, she said she told him. She hung up as quickly as she could, not sure what to do but knowing time was not on their side.

Mohamed continued to ruminate on his best chances. His friends on Facebook seemed to be all he had. He wondered if they thought he was joking. That would be his style -- until that day, most of his wall posts had featured funny videos or photographs of him hamming for the camera. He needed them to know he was serious.

HuffPost annotated Mohamed's actual phone screen for a look into how migrants are using technology. 


Click on the red buttons for the story behind a particular app on Mohamed's phone.


At 8:18 a.m. his time, Mohamed posted a selfie to his Facebook page, taken moments before. The shot frames his face tightly against a backdrop of choppy blue sea. Mohamed included a shot of the boat, stuffed with men and women bearing the same hunted look. By now, many of his companions were awake and counting on him to locate whatever shred of a chance they had. 

Along with his brother, Mohamed had attempted the trip to avoid the hazardous fate of conscription into President Bashar Assad’s army. In his new haze of dizziness, he began to believe he was doomed no matter what. Translated from Arabic, the message he posted along with his photos bore little hope: “Forgive me if I drown.”

Mom’ll Know What To Do

Three minutes later, Mary Beth Kelly, a retired project manager for the International Monetary Fund, received the “kind of text no mother wants to get,” she told HuffPost over the phone from her home in Positano, Italy. Having tried her cousins and brother with no luck (the time difference didn’t help), Danya had moved past Mohamed’s faith in their peers. “Mom!!!” she texted, typing frantically. “Help cal me.”

In a 31-year career overseeing construction with the IMF, Kelly has managed crises on a global scale, from massive fires in Russia to billion-dollar real estate projects. Her skills in the face of uncertainty kicked in as she spoke to Danya, who sounded terrified. Using Google, Kelly and her husband Bob -- Danya’s stepdad -- mapped the Greek island of Chios as the land mass closest to Mohamed, based on his coordinates. As they worked, Danya called Mohamed back. He sounded different than before, more resigned and distant, “like he was giving up,” she said. He was also less coherent, still begging for help, but extending his words as if he were reading his texts aloud: “heeeeeelpppp, pleeeeeeeaase.” Danya told him that though they didn’t yet know how, they were going to save him. He messaged her new coordinates after the call.  

In minutes, Bob tracked down a number for the Chios coast guard, miraculously written in English. The woman Kelly reached on the other end of the line spoke English, too. After taking down Mohamed’s coordinates, she assured Kelly that the Chios guardsmen would find the raft, speaking with the confidence of someone who’d fielded similar pleas before.

Within a half-hour of Danya’s last ask, the Chios coast guard had sent word to Kelly’s contact that they’d sighted the raft. Overjoyed, Danya continued to message her cousin. “They said they see you / They found you. They are going to save you.” On Mohamed’s Facebook page, she left a crisply worded request: “Greece Coast guard says they rescued you. Please confirm.” She didn’t hear back from him. He was drifting in and out of sleep on the boat, overtaken by nausea.

Danya kept texting. At 9:40 a.m., Greek time, Mohamed gave Danya’s last question -- “Are you ok?” -- the answer she didn’t want: “No.” She tried to ascertain what went wrong but his old plea simply resurfaced: “Heeelp.”

Frantic, Danya ignored the coast guard operator’s directive to wait for their call and dialed Chios herself. From the operator, she learned the coast guard members had decided their boat couldn’t handle the waves. They were returning for a new and stronger boat, in which they’d head back out to find Mohamed’s raft.

By now, Mohamed could see land -- hope. He jumped out of the boat, holding on, thinking he could swim and tow the boat to shore. A few other passengers jumped into the water to help him. Left in the raft were those who simply couldn’t move, including a 40-day-old baby, and Mohamed’s friend, the doctor, Khaled At.

Mohamed says he instructed the coast guard to wait for them on land, too proud to ask for help from people he felt would watch them die. The proximity of land also made him feel sure that they would make it. The waves and wind that once tormented the boaters now worked in their favor, pushing them closer to shore. Everyone on the boat reached sand.

On land, Mohamed learned from the coast guard that they had been blown north of Chios, a detail corroborated by At and the final set of coordinates Mohamed beamed out. They were actually on Pasas, a tiny gun-shaped islet with no residents. Because of this aberration, the Chios coast guard office was unable to provide HuffPost with written documentation of the landing, though the operator on duty claimed to remember the story of the group’s arrival because of the newborn.

From Pasas, the coast guard transported everyone to Chios in the boat they’d returned with, Mohammed said. Once on the larger island, he found a motel room. He used a hairdryer to dry the iPhone ports, soaked through the plastic. By Friday evening, he was back on Facebook messenger, updating Danya from a makeshift mattress on the ground of his first refugee camp. He told her how he and his companions paddled that last stretch toward the mirage-like shore with everything they had -- pushing their arms through the water like oars before ultimately plunging their whole bodies into motion. It seemed to him that Facebook kept them alive, connecting him to the promise of life. “We used our hands,” he wrote. “I will take you some pic of our place now.” 

How to help Syrian refugees: Visit the website of the International Rescue Committee for guidance on how to donate, volunteer or otherwise contribute directly to refugees, migrants and aid organizations.

For a list of helpful apps for migrants and refugees, check HuffPost's guide.

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