Between the memes, the engagement videos, deaths, and calls for help, Valentina Primo explores a WhatsApp community – often heart-shattering, improbably funny at times – where a group of 20-something Syrian friends separated by conflict, from Sweden to Egypt, keep their bond alive.
“Run Ahmed, run while you are still in time. Be careful; you can still change your mind,” writes Hassan. His friend Ahmed is getting engaged in Dubai, where he moved in 2012, after the Syrian civil war broke out. “You still have time to run away,” he jokes as the rest of their 19 friends watch emotional videos of the party through their cellphone screens, spread throughout Dubai, Sweden, Turkey, Austria, Egypt, and Syria, where they relocated since the conflict began.
It’s April 22nd and the colourful videos flash on-screen. There is nightclub-like music, neon lights, and people dancing against the backdrop of a luxurious hotel ballroom. A photo slide of childhood memories streaming at the event shows up. “Congratulations, God bless you and your fiancée,” says Haytham. “I wish you were here on this day,” Ahmed replies. Two days later, Eihab sends the portrait of a young man. He is about 25 years old, and he is leaning against a lush green background. “Guys, does anyone know him? He is in the hospital now,” he asks.
Created in 2012, this WhatsApp group keeps alive the ties intertwined by a group of 28-year-old men, who met at school in their war-torn hometown of Aleppo. “We never had this group when living in Syria; we didn’t need it. These are the conversations we used to have in a café, in a bar or a restaurant every day,” says Karim, as he scrolls through the messages from a café in Downtown Cairo, where he's lived since 2012.
Syrian migrants have long used WhatsApp to help each other through their struggles, finding their way to asylum. But as they settle down in new homelands, the social network conveys the fears, the laughter, and the longing of lifelong friends, brothers, and families to keep their emotional ties untouched. “The group used to be called ‘Syrians around the world', but now we’ve changed it to ‘Halab’, the name of the Syrian region that was recently victim of an attack. We often do it when something is happening in Syria, so that we all know,” Karim says. We keep scrolling through the group.
May 1st. Ashraf sends a picture of a dining table, a floral table cloth covering it, surrounded by six empty chairs. “Karim, I miss you. When are you coming to Lebanon to eat hamburgers again?” Ashraf asks. Mohammed has been in Egypt since 2012, where he decided to move after war hindered all possibilities of professional growth and personal safety. “You cannot imagine how war affects you in the smallest of details,” he says. “My cousin’s daughter disappeared two weeks ago, and they still haven’t found her. They are usually kidnapped for ransoms that are impossible to be paid; but who will pay attention to these small stories in the context of a war? Being a young man in Syria, you are bound to disappear,” explains the young lawyer, who works independently in the Egyptian capital.
A couple of other pictures and funny memes follow. “Guys! Attention everyone! Peter is at the café!,” it reads. “This was my hairdresser,” Karim explains, “he used to cut my hair when I was a kid. Now he keeps posting these statuses on Facebook, checking in every hour wherever he goes in Lebanon. He’s acting like a kid and he is 40, so we keep joking about it,” he says. It appears as though each picture were an existential remark, a commentary on the life changes the war brought about. At times incredibly poignant, at times mischievously hilarious, these messages offer a microscopic mirror into the depths of the inherently resilient human condition.
May 3rd. The picture of a one-day-old baby, his limbs dismembered against the backdrop of building rubble, pauses our scrolling. It’s the first day of a week-long offensive over Aleppo, a city considered by Karim as safe until today. The shelling destroyed the hospital where they baby had just been born. “Fuck freedom,” writes Hani as he posts the picture from Stockholm. “God bless you guys,” he adds, thinking of his family back in Aleppo. “God bless Aleppo. It was a crazy day today.”
“We don’t talk about politics," Karim explains. "We just keep in touch with each other and share news because, if we talk about politics, we will end up fighting; some of them support the regime; some others the Free Syrian Army. So we avoid fights and, whenever there is bombing, we call each other on Viber or by phone to check on each other. It’s like a family,” he says.
May 5th. “Guys is anyone going to Lebanon? I'm already there in case someone wants to come,” Hashem announces, as he relocated to the neighbouring country because of the shelling falling over their hometown. Some time after, Ramy posts the screenshot of a post that someone had shared on Facebook. “If someone needs blood, my type is AB+,” it reads.
May 15th. A sequence of messages with the exact same phrase rains down the group. All 20 members of the group are sending messages in support of Ahmed, whose grandmother has passed away. Two days later, the picture of a guy with a funny haircut sparks shrieks of laughter. “In this group, because we are all under pressure, we try to forget. We are human; we can’t be under pressure like a machine all the time. This is how we used to spend our time together, laughing,” says Karim.
The protagonists of the mockery this time are Mahmoud and his brother Hany, separated by war but connected to the same group of friends. Mahmoud had left for Dubai as soon the war broke out, as he had just graduated and risked being called in to join the army. His younger brother, Hany, stayed in Aleppo in order to finish his studies and recently left for Austria on one of the dreaded boats that depart towards Europe from the coasts of Turkey. Karim shows me his photo. “If you think about his life before and his life after the war…” he comments, letting out a sigh. “We used to party a lot together; he came from a very rich family related to the oil engineering business, and he ended up taking the boat to Europe. He wanted to make it on his own,” he says as he points to a photo of Hany sitting outside a fast food chain store in Austria.
In order to preserve the interviewee's privacy, all names have been changed.
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb.