Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were down for more than five hours Monday, October 5, 2021 affecting 3.5 billion users worldwide. Credit: C.C. by 2.0

Amina Baha finally booked a flight to the United States for her mother, Sabera Baha, who’s been stuck in Afghanistan for the past four months. Baha’s mother was supposed to fly out of Kabul Monday evening—until Baha saw that her mother’s flight got canceled. 

Baha, an IT manager at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, spent the day scrambling to come up with a plan. She’d been communicating with her 65-year-old mother on WhatsApp. But when the system crashed Monday, Baha had no way of alerting her.

“She might get ready, might be looking for a ride. She might even go to the airport, but there’s no flight,” Baha told Sahan Journal.

Baha is in touch with the U.S. Department of State to make sure her mother finds another flight out of Afghanistan. But on Monday afternoon, while she was able to explain her backup plan to Sahan Journal, she had no way of immediately updating her mother. 

Immigrants in particular rely on messaging apps such as WhatsApp to text and call family, friends, and coworkers aboard. But 3.5 billion Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp users lost access to the apps for more than five hours Monday, during a massive service crash for the company. 

Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, issued a statement on the Facebook Engineering blog Monday evening explaining that a configuration issue likely caused the outage. The crash started at around 11 a.m. and ended Monday evening after Facebook reset some of its servers.

“This disruption to network traffic had a cascading effect on the way our data centers communicate, bringing our services to a halt,” the Facebook blog post says. “We also have no evidence that user data was compromised as a result of this downtime.”

Coordinating an evacuation—during a global outage

Baha decided to start downloading different messaging apps in the afternoon while searching for another flight for her mom. Baha was hoping to catch Sabera before she left for the airport in the early morning. Baha had previously left a voice message for her mom over WhatsApp explaining the flight complications. But the message wouldn’t go through.

Baha’s mom has been in Afghanistan since May and she’s had trouble finding a flight home. The State Department coordinated a flight to get her and other American citizens and green card holders out of Afghanistan, but they had to cancel the flight because of route concerns. 

Commercial flights aren’t flying in or out of Afghanistan. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred U.S. airlines from operating in Afghanistan because of security concerns with the Taliban-controlled government. The State Department is now trying to put Sabera on a different flight to the United States via another country.

“Now, I’m trying to figure out how to call my mom,” Baha said Monday evening. “The next thing in line to do was to download Viber, hoping that that’s working.”

Baha downloaded Viber, another messaging app, and sent her mother a note. While Baha spoke to Sahan Journal Monday at around 5 p.m., her mother was asleep in Kabul, where it was 2 a.m. 

All Baha could do in the meantime, she said, was wait for her mother to wake up in the morning and hope she received Baha’s Viber messages, at least, before she left for the airport.

“I keep checking to see whether WhatsApp is up or not,” Baha said.

Baha did get a hold of her mom late Monday evening over Viber. By that time, WhatsApp, along with Facebook and Instagram, had restored service. Sabera got the update and remained home in Kabul, where she’s been staying with family.

“I was able to call her and talk to her,” Baha told Sahan Journal Tuesday morning. “We’re okay.”

WhatsApp, jobs, and oral tradition

Anisa Hajimumin, assistant commissioner for immigrants and refugees for the Department of Employment and Economic Development, also ran into issues Monday while troubleshooting for her mother. 

Anisa’s mother lives in Richfield and has family in Ethiopia. She had just wired money to her nephews and wanted to confirm through WhatsApp that they’d received the transfer. She called Anisa to tell her that WhatsApp wasn’t working.

At first, Anisa chalked it up to an internet connection issue and contacted her mother’s internet provider—though with little luck. Anisa said her mom can communicate in English, but she wondered how much more difficult it would be for someone who isn’t fluent in English to talk to a tech expert.

Eventually, Anisa and her mom discovered that billions of other WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram users were facing the same problem.

Anisa described how central WhatsApp is for communication within immigrant communities.  Her mother, for example, told Anisa that she doesn’t just use WhatsApp to keep up with family. She’s part of various WhatsApp groups on topics like women’s leadership and Qu’ran recitation. 

From 2014 to 2017, Anisa worked as a minister of women, development, and family affairs in Somalia, and she observed how integral WhatsApp is for small business owners, merchants, farmers, and herders. Anisa remembered how a camel herder, for example, would often send and receive money through wire transfer services, and then confirm with the recipient or sender through WhatsApp. 

“They would have phones to send and receive money and learn how to utilize that and turn it into a marketing system,” Anisa said. “That’s wealth-building.”

At the Department of Employment and Economic Development, Anisa and other team members had recently been discussing how they can utilize WhatsApp to connect employers with immigrants searching for jobs. 

Emma Kasiga, a senior loan officer at the agency, used to work for the African Development Center, where she quickly found that WhatsApp was a vital tool for small-business owners. You might not even get a hold of them over text, Kasiga joked.

“Most of the mainstream culture thinks of email or websites,” Kasiga said. “Our communities of color think, WhatsApp and phone calls because we tend to gravitate towards oral traditions.”

Now that Kasiga works with manufacturing companies looking for new employees, she’s been talking with Anisa about how the department can use WhatsApp to quickly send out job postings to a large number of people. Something as simple as a flyer Kasiga sends to her networks could help land jobs for, say, 35 employees from immigrant communities.

“Sending something through WhatsApp can be a lifeline,” Kasiga said.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...