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For Immigrant Families, WhatsApp Is a Lifeline — and a Rare Connection to the Worlds They Left Behind

And that can also include halal memes, 9/11 conspiracy theories and lots and lots of Bollywood YouTube videos

Priya Shah, 25, wakes up most mornings to the constant ping of WhatsApp messages. Bleary-eyed, the London-based accountant will grab her phone from her bedside table and scroll through hours’ worth of activity from her family members. The content ranges from gossip about her extended family’s marriages and finances, to animated GIFs of Hindu gods from uncles who consider them as “digital blessings,” to countless articles about local and national Indian news. Whatever the content, though, there are enough messages that by the time she gets through all of them, she’s almost late for work.

In total, Shah is part of three WhatsApp groups. “One is for immediate family,” she says. “That’s really just my mom posting videos of my dad singing along to Bollywood songs, or showing us what she’s cooking that night. The other is a group of cousins who live in the U.K., America, India, Pakistan and Germany. That’s really where we coordinate who’s coming to what wedding, or if one of us is in town and needs a place to sleep.”

The third one, Shah explains, is the most chaotic: “It’s a mix of everyone, and new people get added to it all the time. It’s the place for ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties,’ by which I mean people who you’re not sure how you’re related, but everyone insists you are.” Adding to the chaos of this group of more than 70 people is the fact that there are no neatly defined rules or guidelines; it’s the exact opposite, actually — a group where anything goes. “A few months ago,” Shah says, “this huge argument broke out between some of my extended family in London and their cousins in Delhi. It went on for hours. I’m sure it started off as an argument about a debt that needed to be paid from a couple of years ago. Then it turned into this huge argument about who stole what from who and who wronged who back when they all lived in India.”

Shah was in an important meeting at the time, and was forced to put her phone on silent because of the constant notifications. “By the time I came out, there were more than 100 messages, and my phone was really warm,” she says.

For many first- and second-generation immigrants, Shah’s story will probably sound familiar. Certainly speaking for myself — as a second-generation Indian immigrant living in the U.K. — I’ve been added to a bunch of WhatsApp groups, often by family members I rarely see, or haven’t met at all. In some cases, they’ve added me to groups so that my distant relatives can send my phone number to other aunties whose daughters are looking to get married. In others, they’ve added me to extended family groups that have little actual conversation, but rather, just a couple of extremely active members who send a mixture of religious videos, Bollywood songs from YouTube and conspiracy theories. (I receive at least one message a week arguing that 9/11 was carried out by the U.S. as a plot to seize oil reserves, and at least a couple of month alleging that McDonald’s fish filets aren’t halal because they’re grilled in pork fat.)

“Immigrants use lots of different apps, of course, from Facebook to Skype to WeChat, which is popular in China. But for many, WhatsApp has been at the center of a newfound connectedness,” technology columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote in a 2016 New York Times piece assessing why WhatsApp is so popular among immigrant families. To him, part of WhatsApp’s appeal is that “it’s free [and] has a relatively good record on privacy and security.” It’s easy to use interface, he adds, means that “for migrants, it has become the best way to stay connected along a route, or, once they have landed, to keep in touch with the people they left back home.” In the case of Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn countries for new homes in Europe and the U.S., Manjoo writes that WhatsApp has “become the lingua franca among people who, whether by choice or by force, have left their homes for the unknown” and in doing so “altered the contours of immigrant life.”

In some cases, WhatsApp has provided a lifeline for immigrant families who have rarely visited the lands they left when they were young. Thirty-year-old Adnan Junaid, for example, has lived in Leeds with his family his entire life. And while he grew up speaking Urdu, he tells me, “I never visited Pakistan until I was in my 20s. My family never spoke about Pakistan at the dinner table. I always considered myself British, and the Pakistani side of me was sort of pushed to the side.” He noticed a change, however, when his father bought an iPhone at the insistence of his cousin and started spending hours on WhatsApp. “I thought that he was just learning how to use his phone,” Junaid laughs. “But it turns out he was added to this big group of people who grew up in [Karachi, Pakistan].”

Junaid remembers one particular night when he found his father sitting on their chestnut brown leather sofa, his feet curled up, with tears falling from his eyes. “I wondered if someone had died. He was very quiet,” Junaid recalls. But his father’s burst of emotion had actually been inspired by a photograph of a cousin — someone his dad considered to be a brother — that was posted in the group. “His cousin had died when my dad was a teenager, and he hadn’t realized there were any photographs left of him until one of his cousins posted it into the group. My dad spent the entire night telling me stories about him, what kind of mischief they got up to and how they had dreams of one day running their own [car repair] shop together.”

Nostalgia aside, like Manjoo mentioned in his New York Times piece, WhatsApp can also function as a literal lifeline for those fleeing war zones. I witnessed this first hand in 2015 when I covered the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who were marching through Turkey, Serbia and Croatia in order to find safety in the U.K., France and Germany. During my time on the refugee trail, nearly every person I interviewed was using WhatsApp — some if for no other reason than to tell journalists like myself about their journeys, drawing on voice recordings and images to document the makeshift camps constructed on highways and border crossings, as well as instances of police hostility and neglect.

On a recent trip back to Budapest, I visited Ali, a 23-year-old refugee I met years ago who works in a Syrian gyro shop in the city center. Over lamb kebabs, Ali (a pseudonym) tells me that while he still has dreams of returning to Syria — something he says he can’t do because he actively protested against Bashar al-Assad (hence the pseudonym) — for the moment at least, WhatsApp keeps him as connected as possible to his brother and mother, who still live there. It’s cheap because it operates using Wi-Fi, and it’s encrypted enough that the government can’t trace where (or who) he or his family is. “When we first met, I used WhatsApp for everything,” he says. “I was using it to send pictures to my family, and I was using it to say that I was safe, that I was looking for a job and that I would send them money.”

He also used it to send them news that consisted of something other than Assad propaganda, as within Syria, the government had blocked most of the internet and television channels that didn’t tow Assad’s line. “I’d send them articles about how many people cared about us. I [wanted] to show them that the world is better. That it’s filled with good people.” In return, his family would send messages back to him. Sometimes, it would be news of the civil war, like defeats of Assad forces by rebels or evacuations. But other times, “they’d just be things to take their mind off the war. I’d send them funny videos I found on YouTube, or pictures of cats I’d seen. I still send them these things to make them feel happy. I don’t know if it will be safe enough to go back. Until then, I [will] give them videos and speak on WhatsApp.”

Depite the slight annoyance everyone I spoke to has about big family WhatsApp groups, some express fear that new changes to the app could disrupt the communities their families built — both online and IRL. In particular, earlier this year, WhatsApp announced that it will place restrictions on how many people can receive forwarded messages in a group chat and pivot WhatsApp to, according to its head of communications Carl Woog, “the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app.” The policy was implemented in India after accusations that people were using the app to not only post “fake news,” much of which was anti-Muslim in nature, but that it was resulting in assaults (and even deaths) of religious minorities. The new restrictions mean that forwarded articles — the things that Shah’s family often post — are much rarer, and groups like hers have become far less lively.

“Obviously, it’s good not to be woken up in the middle of the night by a ton of messages that have come from someone forwarding a picture or some kind of weird fake article,” Shah says. “But I do kind of miss it, too. It was nice to feel like part of this big international family. Even if I didn’t ever write anything in the group, it was so nice to see how much my family cares about each other, and how they’re all so genuinely excited to be connected.”

“In the big family chat, people just talk,” she continues. “There’s no motivation. There’s no reason behind it. They just care. For my generation, that’s such a rare thing to see.”