Immigrant’s Innovative Mobile App Now Used to Connect Immigrants Worldwide

When Jan Koum and his mother immigrated to San Francisco from their native Ukraine in the mid 1990s to escape a growing wave of anti-Semitism, they strove to build a life for themselves in an unfamiliar country. Koum struggled to fit in among his high school classmates and began acting out, while his mother toiled in a series of low paying jobs until she developed cancer. The two were subsisting on her monthly disability allowance when an eighteen-year-old Koum began teaching himself computer networking from manuals purchased at a used book store. Over two decades later, Koum’s teenage hobby has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar app that connects immigrants to their families all over the world. [See Exclusive: The Rags-to-Riches Tale of How Jan Koum Built WhatsApp into Facebook’s New $19 Billion Baby, by Parmy Olson, Forbes, 19.Feb.2014.]

Koum is the inventor and founder of WhatsApp, an online and mobile device messaging service that allows free texts, calls, and video chats to virtually any corner of the globe. And while WhatsApp is available to anyone who wishes to download and use its services, it has developed a core demographic among the immigrant community. The reason for this is twofold. WhatsApp technology is simple, intuitive, and easy to use, and the fact that the application’s text and call features are free is a clear advantage over more traditional phone carriers. But immigrants also value another core feature of WhatsApp – the fact that the app is encrypted, which allows its users to access the features with a high expectation for privacy and security. And while some users were concerned about whether WhatsApp would maintain its commitment to privacy after being purchased by social media juggernaut Facebook in 2014, it’s still considered a cornerstone of communication in the immigrant community.

Anne Reef, a former English professor who immigrated from South Africa to the United States in the 1980’s, credits WhatsApp for replacing expensive international calls home to her family and fortifying her connection with family back in her native country. When a cousin in Australia recently gave birth to a baby, Ms. Reef could access a constant stream of pictures via WhatsApp. As a result, “I feel much more involved with the baby’s life – I feel like I know him, and that he’s become more than a third cousin to me,” she told The New York Times. WhatsApp’s technology has also been harnessed by immigrants in dire situations as a lifeline to the outside world. Millions of Syrian refugees flooding into Europe have used WhatsApp to pass along vital information and pleas for help to fellow migrants while on their journey. And a stream of Venezuelans who entered Florida last year while escaping their economically devastated homeland used WhatsApp to reach out to friends and relatives in the United States. [See For Millions of Immigrants, a Common Language: WhatsApp, by Farhad Manjoo, New York Times, 21.Dec.2016.]

For his part, WhatsApp inventor and founder Jan Koum seems to embrace his application’s status among the immigrant community. In an eMail interview with The New York Times, he related his own challenges as an immigrant to how he developed WhatsApp. “A lot of us at WhatsApp were born in other countries. We recognize how important it is for people to connect with family thousands of miles away, because it’s something we think about a lot. [Every feature in the app] was designed in part by someone living the immigrant experience every day.”


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