“Remember, Alaa, the walls have ears!” my father told me as he handed me the phone to speak to my cousin in Damascus, Syria. He was referring to Syrian intelligence police listening in on all calls from America to locals.
Growing up in Chicago, I realized that there are many freedoms we are privileged to have and take for granted in the USA that my cousins and relatives in Syria did not have. From a young age, I was taught to restrict and filter what I say to my relatives on the phone. “No religion, no politics, nothing against the government, and not even political jokes that might be critical of the government.” My parents made sure that I understood and memorized that list by heart. Phone conversations with my aunts and uncles became boring, colorless, and monotonous.
If one dared criticize the government, then the person on the Syrian end of the call will be detained by intelligence forces for an unknown period of time, tortured in jail, and possibly killed. The phrase I recall hearing all the time about people being detained and put in jail was, so and so was “picked up and sent behind the sun.”
Fast forward ten years, the paradise of communications opened its gates up for an expat to communicate with relatives back home: WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, WeChat, and the list goes on. We downloaded all of them and encouraged our relatives to contact us using the apps. It was a safer and cheaper option to communicate without the fear of being listened in on by Syrian intel.
It didn’t take long, however, for the Syrian government to ban Skype and WhatsApp, primarily because they couldn’t crack the apps and listen in on calls. That’s when Hotspot Shield became a game changer in the world of communication and messaging between expats and our families in the motherland. With the free Hotspot Shield app installed on our phones and computers, my family and many others were able to use communication apps that allowed them to safely stay in touch without fear of someone listening in or monitoring their messages.
Now I can easily ask my friends and family about current events, politics, and speak religion to them without fearing for their lives or feeling guilty that they might be prosecuted for something I say to them over the phone or in a text. While governments continue to try and strip us of our basic rights, it’s encouraging to know that there are people out there working on technology that can help.