In the Magazine Tech & Science

'Hacktivists' Keep Refugees Online in Dead Zone Germany

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Customers work on their laptops in St. Oberholz, a cafe in Berlin, Germany, on May 11. Kay Nietfled/EPA

On a warm afternoon in early June, Mohammed Mossli was sitting in a trendy café in Berlin. The café, with its raw wooden countertops, craft sodas and fashionable young men and women typing away at laptops, was far from the sniper fire and rubble of Aleppo, Syria, Mossli’s hometown, which he describes as “only dust and ashes.” Still, Mossli, who is 21, tall, thin and prone to smile, seemed at ease as he rolled a cigarette and kidded around with one of his new friends: Philipp Borgers.

Borgers is a German software developer and member of the “hacktivist” group Freifunk, a community of hackers, programmers and free network activists across Germany attempting to spread “mesh networking,” an ad hoc wireless network technology that allows computers and devices to connect directly to one another without passing through any centralized authority or organization.

Refugees offline

A hacktivist and a refugee might seem like an unlikely pair, but in a city with 40,000 refugees, this collision of worlds is increasingly common. And for Mossli, becoming involved with the city’s tech community has helped make Berlin a new home: Back in Syria, he had been in his second semester of studies for a computer science degree at Aleppo University. That is until the Bashar al-Assad regime started detaining some of his classmates. “Sometimes, they arrested people right in the exam room,” he says. “Just because of your last name or because someone in your class was at a protest, it’s enough reason for them to arrest you.” Afraid he could be next, Mossli fled Syria and, like thousands of others from his war-torn country, made his way to Germany, where he has been living for the past 10 months.

Mossli’s parents are still in Aleppo, and his only connection to them is WhatsApp messages and, when the internet in Aleppo is working, brief Skype calls. That’s why Mossli has come to treasure something many of us take for granted: a Wi-Fi connection.

In Berlin, finding Wi-Fi can be as difficult as divining for water: A law known as Störerhaftung makes the owner of a Wi-Fi network liable for any illegal downloads or illicit activity using that connection, discouraging many businesses from providing free networks. Beyond legal restrictions, a lack of investment from the German government has also created technological limitations, says Borgers. “There is a refugee crisis,” he says. “But there is also an infrastructure crisis. Germany is far behind other countries when it comes to internet connection.”

The combination of restrictive legislation and a lack of technological infrastructure has made it difficult for many of Berlin’s 149 refugee shelters to provide Wi-Fi to their residents. In one shelter where Mossli stayed, he says there was no Wi-Fi and just four computers for 400 residents. “I never even tried to use them,” he says.

Although every shelter in Berlin must adhere to strict standards of hygiene, security, fire safety and food preparation, internet access is not mandatory.

Yet for many refugees, access to the internet is the only way to communicate with their families and one another, or navigate the complexities of a foreign country. “This was something we could do something about,” says Borgers of Freifunk. “So we decided to help.”

07_22_Hactivists_01 Nofal Halab, a refugee from Syria, uses his computer in his room inside of a residential container at a camp for asylum-seekers in Berlin's southeastern Koepenick district on September 15, 2015. Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty

Freifunk expands access

Elektra Wagenrad is one of Freifunk’s oldest members. She says mesh networking and groups like Freifunk are in many ways an evolution of the anarchist spirit that has long permeated Berlin.

Mesh networking involves setting up routers or “nodes” in public places (often church steeples or radio towers) to allow one computer or device to connect to every other in the network. Once in the mesh network, a computer can share its internet connection with any others in range. “If one node fails, the connection will find a different route,” says Wagenrad. “The network can heal itself.” Berlin’s Freifunk network has 617 nodes, with somewhere from 3,000 to 5,000 users, the group estimates.

Freifunk holds meetings every Wednesday night inside c-base, a huge underground space in the shadow of the Berlin TV Tower filled with ’80s video game memorabilia, 3-D printers, dozens of computers and a space station airlock: Legend has it that c-base is a spaceship that landed in Berlin some 4.5 billion years ago.

The group’s work with refugees in Berlin began in 2012, when refugees were occupying Oranienplatz, a public square in the Kreuzberg district, to demand better treatment. The occupation had no information technology infrastructure, and so Freifunkers decided to get the refugees internet. In December 2013, Freifunk connected its first refugee shelter, the Gerhart Hauptmann School. As the refugee crisis grew in 2014 and more shelters began opening, Freifunk expanded its network. It has connected more than 30 shelters in Berlin and more than 200 across Germany.

David Achuo, 24, is a Freifunk alumnus. He learned about mesh networking from Wagenrad, who has started giving workshops for refugees. Achuo is a refugee from Cameroon, where he was no stranger to online activism. During the country’s elections in 2011, Achuo created a website in support of the opposition People’s Action Party. When the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement party discovered the website, Achuo says it made him a target: On election day, he was stabbed at a polling station 11 times. “It’s just God that saved me,” he says, pulling up his shirt to reveal deep scars on his chest.

Achuo fled to Germany and has spent the last four years at a shelter in Potsdam, about an hour outside of Berlin, waiting for his asylum application to be processed. Thanks to Freifunk, he was able to provide refugees in the shelter with free Wi-Fi.

07_22_Hactivists_02 Refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Germany, including men with smartphones sitting on a couch, kill time in Hangar 7 where they temporarily live at the former Tempelhof Airport on February 11 in Berlin, Germany. First built in the 1930s, the now decommissioned airport in the city center houses approximately 2,600 refugees in three hangars. Sean Gallup/Getty

Achuo also runs an internet café inside the shelter set up by Refugees Emancipation, a nonprofit organization that runs internet cafés in shelters in Potsdam and Berlin. The organization’s founder and director, Chu Eben, is also a Cameroonian refugee: He arrived in Germany in 1998 and was put in a former military bunker in what used to be East Germany. Eben says he felt completely isolated from the rest of society. Then the internet came along. “My friends in Africa called me and asked me for my email address,” he says. “I didn’t know how to tell them I’d never used a computer.” He decided to do something about it. He connected with some University of Potsdam students, who got him online and eventually helped him raise the funds to launch Refugees Emancipation and it’s first refugee camp internet café. Now the organization runs eight more across Potsdam and Berlin. “Coming together in the cafés breaks the isolation. It builds a direct connection with civil society, between refugees and can allow us to create a political platform.”

Civil disobedience

Freifunk too has a political dimension: It operates without government authorization. As Theresa Züger, a researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, puts it, “It’s a very productive kind of civil disobedience. It’s not just disruptive but also empowering. It’s citizens taking politics in their own hands and doing it in a very positive way.” Recently, both groups worked together. In October 2015, Freifunk worked with Chaos Computer Club, another hacker collective in Germany, to launch a fundraiser for Refugees Emancipation. They not only beat their ambitious target of 67,000 euros (about $74,000) but also received 2.5 tons of hardware from one of Berlin’s district councils.

In June of this year, Eben celebrated the launch of his organization’s newest internet café inside a shelter on Heinrich-Mann-Allee in Potsdam. At the opening, Eben smiled and proudly showed off the 20 new computers to a group of refugees, social workers and journalists. Achuo was there also, talking politics with Fadir Sujaa, a Syrian refugee who will be running the café. The room was filled with children from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and other countries, excitedly clicking away on the machines.

On the wall behind them, a simple phrase was written in English, Arabic, German and Farsi: “Internet access is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.”