As nonprofits prepare for Syrian refugees, cellphones top list of sought after donations

People recharge their cell phones and computers at a police supplied generator in Rockaway Beach after Superstorm Sandy swept through on October 31, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City. At least 50 people were reportedly killed in the U.S. by Sandy. New York City was hit especially hard with widespread power outages and significant flooding in parts of the city.
People recharge their cell phones and computers at a police supplied generator in Rockaway Beach after Superstorm Sandy swept through on October 31, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City. At least 50 people were reportedly killed in the U.S. by Sandy. New York City was hit especially hard with widespread power outages and significant flooding in parts of the city.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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As advocates prepare for the arrival of Syrian refugees next year, they're working to stockpile one of the most useful tools for integration: smartphones.

“Refugees now will tell you: I need a phone before a car,” said Nahla Kayali, executive director of Access California Services, a refugee services group in Anaheim.

While you may stare at the bright-blue screens to scroll through endless feeds of Instagram photos and Vine videos, immigrants learning to navigate Southern California or learning English see them as a lifeline of apps that can replace confusing maps and bulky dictionaries.

“If they are lost in the street, they can get to their homes,” Kayali said. “They can translate a word immediately."

Wi-Fi, cell phone chargers and power outlets are prominent at European refugee camps where Syrians have fled to.

It could be several months before most Syrian refugees arrive in Southern California after layers of security checks, interviews and health screenings. Some families will trickle in early – those who were already in the resettlement process well before President Obama’s announced in September that the U.S. would accept at least 8,000 refugees from Syria.

But refugee service groups in Orange County said they keep getting calls from volunteers and ex-pats asking, “Are they here yet?”

People want to help.

“They are asking what can we do and how do we do it,” said Mike Long, executive director of Voice of the Refugees, a faith-based volunteer group in Anaheim that works with refugees coming from the Middle East and North Africa.  

The group is one of several that partner with resettlement agencies to provide refugees transportation and offer them community classes on English, personal finance or job training.

Voice of the Refugees is teaming up with a local church to collect donated cell phones with 30-day SIM cards so emergency contacts for social services and support groups in Southern California can be pre-programed for new refugees arriving next year.

Long said car seats, appliances or furniture are also in high demand. He said concerned people should reach out to their local refugee advocacy groups to ask what items or services they can donate.

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