The Empathy Machine: How Virtual Reality Can Humanize Refugee Situations

The Empathy Machine: How Virtual Reality Can Humanize Refugee Situations

A delegate at the Supporting Syria conference checks out an immersive story - Clouds Over Sidra - following the life of one young Syrian refugee living in Za'atari Camp in Jordan. Source: UK Department for International Development

The proliferation of social media and smart technology has helped not only raise awareness of refugee’s plight around the world but also to assist refugees by facilitating communication between family members as well as sending remittances. It has also proven to be an invaluable tool in helping refugees navigate their way through countries and to determine displaced population sizes. Recent technological advances have changed the way we view and experience videos and movies. But so-called “new technology” like Virtual Reality and Drones also plays a part in humanitarian issues. It is able to provide an important layer to humanitarian assistance; Virtual Reality and 360 movies, for example, are known as the “Empathy Machines,” as they are able to transform a mere 2D movie into an all-encompassing experience. The hope is that by doing so, policy makers and audiences are more aware of the often-lost nuances of displaced populations and focus not on providing more aid but more effective aid.

With approximately 4.7 million registered Syrian refugees in the world and millions more displaced, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has developed a unique and efficient way of registering the Syrians. Registering people is a necessary means to understanding who’s entering the country and who’s leaving, especially in the current climate with Syria when so many are choosing to leave neighboring host states and leave for Syria or other parts of the world. Until registered, the asylum seekers are not refugees and thus not entitled to any protection or services and assistance, like shelter, food, healthcare and education.  Instead of using photos and pieces of paper that are often lost or damaged, UNHCR has started to employ iris scans, similar to those seen at airports. More than one million Syrians have already been registered using this technology. Only taking 2-3 minutes compared to half an hour for more conventional methods, electronic registering uses a database can help NGOs and other international bodies involved in the response to monitor aid and personnel more efficiently. Using this technology is certainly an improvement from certain past practices, like that of Czech Republic, when officials wrote numbers on the refugees’ arms in order to register them. This was internationally slammed, as it drew comparisons to Nazis registering Jews in concentration camps during World War II.

Zach Ingrasci, Co-Founder of the company Living on One, explained in a phone interview that using biometric registration methods stems from realization by the United Nations that after registering displaced populations in Pakistan, “[the agency] was missing a large part of the population.” However, problems still persist, as diasporas can be not only afraid of the technology but also uncomfortable of the people doing the registration. Therefore, Ingrasci clarified, it is vital that the process has to be culturally sensitive.

“[Virtual Reality] is not a video game peripheral,” declared Chris Milk, the founder of VRSE, a production company that specializes in Virtual Reality spherical filmmaking, during his TED Talk entitled “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine” in 2015. “It connects humans to other humans in a profound way [that has never been seen before] in any other form of media.” In his talk, Milk also describes his work with the United Nations on developing a movie called “Clouds Over Sidra,” about a 12 year-old girl from Southern Syria named Sidra who now lives in Za’atari Refugee Camp in Northern Jordan. The movie documents her life from studying in her caravan, eating with her family and her journey through the camp to school. Milk emphasizes that by viewing this movie through Virtual Reality, it does not just allow you to watch Sidra’s daily life and her struggle, it transports you to her world; you are sitting there with her in her school, in her room and with her family. It is, as Ingrasci explained, “the most immersive experience we see out there.”

Ingrasci and his co-director on “Salam Neighbor” (available on iTunes now), Chris Temple, have also recognized the importance of new technology in refugee situations. Together with the HuffPost RYOT, they created the documentary “For My Son” and a six part series called “Jordan’s Refugee Crisis,” both of which are shot and can be viewed in 360 degrees. They realized that it is important not only to raise awareness of the plight of refugees in camps but also to humanize the extreme journeys people make from their home towns to urban host communities, where approximately 80 percent of the Syrian refugee population live.

By bringing an Oculus Virtual Reality headset on their nationwide tour of the acclaimed “Salam Neighbor,” Temple and Ingrasci have allowed thousands of people to not just learn about the Syrian refugee crisis from watching the news and reading about it but also to experience it. “For My Son” tells the story of Firas, a Syrian from Dara’a, and his escape from the country, his reunification with his family in Za’atari and the birth of his now two-year-old son, Mohamed. Audiences that have watched the movie using the Oculus Virtual Reality are able to feel what it’s like to be in Aleppo that is now a desolate city, filled with concrete buildings destroyed beyond recognition with sniper shots audible in the background (using footage shot by HuffPost RYOT), as well as walking through the bustling main street of “Champs Elysées” in Za’atari Camp.

It can often be easy to forget the normalcy that the refugees faced before the conflict, especially for policy makers and given recent rhetoric. But instead of just producing these films for the wider public, Milk, who has started projects using VR in Liberia and elsewhere around the world, brought “Clouds Over Sidra” to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. By letting those who can really change someone’s life (for example the United Nations) see how people are impacted, the hope is that policy makers are not as disconnected and can gain a more nuanced understanding of the plight of refugees, especially if they are not accustomed to being on the ground helping with the implementation of policies and aid.

So, if people are aware of the positive impact that Virtual Reality and biometric registration can have on humanitarian situations, what is stopping their wider implementation? First, cost. The three pillars of humanitarian assistance are food, shelter and healthcare. Getting people basic necessities to as many people as possible to ensure daily livelihood in an effective way should be at the forefront of every actor in the international refugee regime. While drones can be used to deliver aid into besieged areas of Syria without having to force a ceasefire or bribing officials, the cost of developing sufficient drones should not be the priority. Furthermore, this technology is still new; it is still developing. Ingrasci explicates that, especially when shooting in 360, there can be problems carrying around six Go-Pros and stitching the different videos together. However, the novelty of the technology also makes it exciting; it means that there is so much more experimenting to be done and that the boundaries of storytelling can be pushed even further.

But as much as we should work to use technology to humanize issues, we also have to temper our moral duty to help with mutual respect. As with registration, it is important to be sensitive. Without cultural understanding or approval by the communities we hope to understand, filmmakers could give the impression of being invasive, selfish and merely going into camps for the sake of “refugee tourism.” Ingrasci and Temple have recognized this importance and brought the final version of “Salam Neighbor,” along with VR technology, to the refugees in Za’atari to ensure that everyone involved approves and is comfortable with the product. Rauf – a Syrian boy featured in “Salam Neighbor” – as Ingrasci explains, loved being transported to and exploring areas beyond the confines of Za’atari Camp.

The aim of using new technology in humanitarian situations is to remind everyone that refugees are neither mere statistics, animals in a zoo nor chess pieces whom higher powers determine the future for. Refugees are human beings just like you and me whose lives have been turned upside down because of, most often, political conflict. Rhetoric can sometimes contradict and blur these notions and I believe it is the job and obligation of humanity to remind people that we are all the same. It is our duty to break down the boundaries and obstacles preventing delivery and implementation of effective aid, to tear past the fake preconceptions that refugees are poor and terrorists, to show compassion, to act, to serve and to ensure that nobody has to endure unnecessary hardship and discrimination and using new technology can only help in the process.

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