Columbia College sophomore Liza Roy sometimes feels guilty complaining to Reza Shahin, her new friend in Indonesia. Tired after another week of college, Roy will lean into the phone and gripe about the work she has to do. Her friend, always interested to hear about Roy’s life, will commiserate with her. But the truth is that Roy’s daily complaints do not amount to Shahin’s. Having fled from Afghanistan, Shahin is stuck in a Jakarta refugee camp with little to do.
The two friends, half a world apart, found one another through a Facebook group called Karavan. Created by Soraya Beheshti, a sophomore in the School of General Studies, and Charlotte Maxwell, a United Kingdom native whom Beheshti met while volunteering in a refugee camp, the page has attracted over 4,300 members in its four months of existence. It is named after caravansaries, venues that dotted the Silk Road and offered travelers respite and company. Karavan has connected hundreds of individuals, refugees, and local citizens alike, who are looking to exchange services like Arabic lessons, legal advice, or graphic design—or to just make a friend.
Having fled unrest in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, 21.3 million people in the world are refugees. While some countries have taken on enormous burdens in providing aid and shelter to displaced people, others have wavered in their support and even shut their gates. In the United States, Donald Trump swept into the presidency with messages of fear about immigrants and refugees, particularly targeting Muslims, and has quickly moved to place a ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Syria.
Deeply personal experiences undergird the motivation of Beheshti: Her father, a documentary filmmaker, was displaced from Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and he undertook a tumultuous journey to escape. Travels on donkeyback, in the backs of cars, and hitchhiking brought him to Turkey, and then on to Italy.
Aspiring to make documentaries like her father, Beheshti set out for Europe this summer to make a film about the state of the refugee crisis. What she describes of her weeks in London, Paris, and the Calais Jungle—the prominent migrant camp that was demolished in October—is not only a story of profound human connection, but also one of frustration and shock.
It was in the sprawling Calais Jungle that Beheshti and Maxwell encountered the resilience that refugees had to muster. The camp seemed like a country of its own. Without official international aid agencies or opportunities in the formal job market, the migrants exercised self-determination by creating their own restaurants and social spaces within the camp. “You could see people trying to exert whatever scraps of agency had been left to them,” Beheshti recalls.
It is this agency which lies at the heart of the project’s mission. Many of Maxwell’s migrant friends who made it to the U.K.—a sought-after destination—would call her rejoicing. Not too long after, however, they would grow disillusioned. “‘You know what, I'm just gonna come back to the Jungle,’” they would text her. “‘It's boring here, and all I'm doing is waiting for my legal papers. I can't work.’”
In the absence of a sustainable salary, many find themselves relying on meager government benefits that, in the U.K., researchers call “enforced poverty.” For those who struggle, a feeling of powerlessness and despondency ensues.
“They had all these talents that were being totally wasted,” Beheshti says. “We thought it was so, so unfair that they're kind of placed in this very helpless situation.”
Beheshti and Maxwell kept in touch online and began to form plans for a group that would help alleviate the dejection their friends felt amid the stagnancy of their living environment. Their idea, Karavan, capitalizes on the resourcefulness they witnessed in Calais.
“Looking for a language exchange,” an Arabic student in Edinburgh, Scotland might post on the open Facebook group. “Happy to teach English, buy cake/coffee etc!”
While language exchange is the most common posting, one sees the diversity of human skills unfold on the messaging board, which uses English as a standard language. Migrants get the opportunity to trade their valuable yet unused skills for the services of citizens in their new towns and cities. They design websites, cook together, and teach photography. One person from Syria may even teach silversmithing, in exchange for boxing lessons.
I spoke to several participants in such exchanges. Yaman Tawakalna, who fled Syria in 2011, has been in Edinburgh for a year now. Hearing Tawakalna narrate his busy life in a melodic English accent, I found exactly the kind of self-determination that Beheshti and Maxwell’s project is meant to celebrate. Tawakalna works two jobs, in a bakery and in a convenience store, and finds time to squeeze in English lessons at a local college. Finding those English classes to be slack and ineffective, however, he has found a language partner through the Karavan group.
Tawakalna is determined to improve his English so that he can get his degree in business administration, which he was not able to finish at Damascus University. Tawakalna was also an auto mechanic in Syria, but this hobby, too, is stymied by his less-than-perfect English. “I know everything on the cars—like parts of car, or the problem on the car,” he says. “But in Arabic.”
On top of this, he worked as a chef and is looking to do exactly what Beheshti and Maxwell championed: open a take-away restaurant in Edinburgh. In this endeavor, it is not English skills he is lacking. Rather, it is the connections—Tawakalna is still looking for a local business partner.
Still, Karavan’s language exchange provides an important opportunity to improve his English. His partner, Kai Kamei, is getting her master’s degree in advanced Arabic at the University of Edinburgh. Kamei has volunteered in the Calais Jungle, too, but she emphasizes that interacting with refugees using Karavan is different. In Calais, Kamei taught English and distributed aid. he felt this kind of charity work was important but very one-sided. Karavan makes longer-term, reciprocal relationships possible.
“It’s more a case of making them feel like this [Facebook group] is their home,” Kamei says.
The platform works especially well for students like Kamei. Beheshti compares the appeal to people’s charitable-giving tendencies: Few consumers, no matter how conscientious, will donate directly to the preservation of the Amazon rainforest. They are more likely to purchase an ethically sourced brand of Brazilian coffee at the supermarket. “I don't think it's selfish,” Beheshti says. “But it's more economic.”
For those who cannot interrupt work or family life to volunteer in a refugee camp, then choosing an exchange with a refugee is an easy option for deriving certain services.
Kamei offered words of caution—such cross-cultural encounters are not always easy. One issue applies to all meetings with strangers: safety. Kamei was concerned after a language exchange program at the University of Jordan, where male language-learners acted inappropriately towards their female partners.
She was cautious during her first meeting through Karavan, but her apprehensions weren’t realized. “It was just about the language,” she says, “I didn't feel uncomfortable at all.”
Another issue: Citizens can also lack sensitivity when speaking to refugees. Working in Calais, Kamei says, had made her aware that asking the wrong questions, even simple ones about family background, could unlock painful, traumatic memories.
I tried to keep this in mind when I spoke to Shahin, the Afghan refugee in Jakarta. Shahin has been unable to leave the confines of his camp for over two years, waiting for an interview with the UN Refugee Agency that would get him recognition as a refugee. During our interview over Whatsapp, Shahin recounted this difficult situation, but he was eager to hear about what life was like for me, in America. As we shared our experiences, I realized the potential of this exchange: Through the Internet, we could each glimpse lives very different from our own. And as I lounged in my well-heated dorm room at Columbia, I admired the resilience that carried Shahin through these strained circumstances.
Roy, witnessing the misery of some of her online friends, felt spurred to political action. She says that Columbia, with its long history of protests, should resist the racism that makes communities turn a blind eye to immigrants and refugees. Roy’s way of talking about her online friends presents a model for Karavan’s ultimate goal: the facilitation of intimate exchanges that blur the line between those who have legally resided in their home countries since birth and those who were compelled to immigrate under dire circumstances.
Though Beheshti and Maxwell have since split over differences in vision, Beheshti will continue to run the project. Her ambitions exceed the Karavan Facebook page: Through events, private donors, and grassroots funding, she is fundraising for the development of the Karavan app. She foresees that the app will allow participants to earn points—a more standardized and equitable currency for exchange—for their services and let them spend these points on services from others later.
For Roy and Shahin, the Facebook page has already offered the opportunity to extend a hand to the other side of the globe for friendship. Shahin details his difficult conditions. Roy listens. Then he gives her the space to voice her thoughts about her workload at Columbia.
At a time when millions of displaced people suffer and many countries, including the U.S., prove less than welcoming, Shahin and Roy take the time to just talk. She was matter-of-fact about the possibility of deep connections across cultural and spatial divides. “You're a friend. You're a human,” she said. “We're both humans.”
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