Swedes Are Asked to Call ‘The Syrian Number’ in Sobering Spinoff of ‘The Swedish Number’

The calls aren't as pleasant in Unicef's campaign

A new Swedish campaign raises awareness about the ongoing conflict in Syria by creating “The Syrian Number,” a spinoff of last year’s “The Swedish Number,” a tourism campaign that invited people abroad to call and chat with a random Swede.

The new campaign, by Unicef and MDC Partners agency Forsman and Bodenfors, urges citizens of the Scandinavian country to call children in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.

The new number, +46 85-511-7864, bears Sweden’s country code. When we called it, an operated voice said, in English, “You will soon be connected to a family in Syria.” After two rings, the call goes to an answering machine, where a child’s voice explains why nobody can get to the phone.

“Hello—I’m sorry but we won’t be able to answer your call,” says one recording. “We are leaving our house because we have to get away from the bad people. It’s scary because I don’t know what will happen. I hope we can go to Canada where we will be safe, but it’s very very far away. Maybe I will see you there.”

“This is Talal,” says another. “I won’t be home for a while because me and my family are leaving tonight. We are driving to Jordan. It’s scary because there are military people everywhere and they have guns. But we can’t stay in Syria anymore. I have to pack my clothes now. I have to go. Bye.”

“You have reached the Naha family,” says a third. “We won’t be home for a while and maybe we won’t be back at all. A missile landed beside our house. Now my parents say we have to go before we get hurt. We are leaving after sunset, and hopefully we can make it to Jordan, where we will be safe. I hope you are safe, too.”

After six years, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced, the brutal civil war in Syria has yet to find a resolution. Despite a nationwide ceasefire, government-aligned forces continue to attack rebels in areas outside the capital, Damascus, threatening to derail peace talks, while also choking off aid supplies including much-needed food and medicine.

The United Nations, meanwhile, is accusing President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces of committing a war crime by bombing a water supply that cut off access to 5.5 million people in December, and also calling the country a “torture chamber,” especially for detainees of the government and extremist groups.

Any effort that keeps attention on the conflict is worthwhile. One targeting Swedes specifically could be especially important, as the country, historically welcoming to refugees, struggles with rising tensions over the huge influx of asylum seekers in recent years.

"We are leaving after sunset, and hopefully we can make it to Jordan, where we will be safe."
Child on a Syrian Number recording

And the Forsman and Bodenfors effort here is most effective in that it forces callers to think about what they might actually say to a Syrian child, if connected.

At the same time, the campaign risks being a little self-referential, nationally speaking. “The Swedish Number” was created by Ingo, a Swedish WPP agency, and “The Syrian Number” is trading on borrowed interest from that phenomenon, without the extemporaneous, uncontrolled element that helped make it so powerful.

While calling a family in a war zone to chat is clearly impractical, the recordings also ask more of the audience’s imagination than a video might, and struggle to viscerally capture the true horrors of the conflict, as have harrowing PSAs from Unicef and Save the Children.

To be fair, picking up the phone is a more proactive and interactive approach, but hopefully it drives callers to do more than just dial.