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Virtual refugees

Will experiential learning methods drive humanitarian engagement?


VR headset: mheim3011/iStock; Refugees: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Virtual refugees
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SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill.—Daniel Alkhory, 26, grew up fast. Raised in Baghdad, he fled to Erbil when al-Qaeda drove Christians out of their homes in 2006. Six years later Alkhory became a priest and began serving at Mar Elia Church, a Chaldean Catholic parish. After Islamic State in 2014 took over Mosul, about 50 miles west of Erbil, 1,600 displaced persons arrived at Alkhory’s church seeking refuge.

Alkhory, looking for help, came to Willow Creek Community Church’s annual Global Leadership Summit wearing his clerical collar and black suit, in sharp contrast to most casually dressed attendees. Alkhory’s work managing a makeshift refugee camp is something few Americans understand, but many would want to assist—if they learned about it.

Aid groups wanting to tell stories are trying out virtual reality (VR) technology. At Willow Creek, David Cady from Columbus, Ohio, put on a Samsung Gear VR headset and watched 13-year-old Ali selling tissues on a busy street corner outside a refugee camp in Lebanon. Cady listened to a narrator explaining how Ali earns $4 on a good day to help feed his family after escaping Syria.

When he put down the headset, Ali vanished, but Cady remembered: “When I saw that boy in the video, the first thing I thought was, ‘I have a 13-year-old boy.’”

World Vision came to Willow Creek with 12 VR headsets hoping to elicit similar responses. Starting this year, the aid group—which carries on its work using private donations and through federal-aid-related contracts—is investing tens of thousands of dollars into VR and hoping to move beyond this summer’s reporting on the group’s Gaza relief funds allegedly diverted to terrorists. Is the investment working? Dawna Watson and Nicole DeFalco, two Willow Creek congregants, told me they’d like to help refugees but pause at donating to big organizations like World Vision—unsure of their dollars’ final destination.

Other groups are also trying to ramp up awareness and engagement. In New Orleans this summer, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) had dozens of teenagers climb into a small raft to mimic fleeing violence by sea. Teens also grabbed backpacks and rushed to decide which items were essential when fleeing violence. They shuffled into replica refugee housing with tents provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, partnering with Habitat for Humanity, designed a free digital kit churches and schools can use to build replica Nigerian refugee housing. The kit contains step-by-step instructions, display pictures, and handouts. Groups need to purchase $200 in building materials. Wilberforce hopes the “Build Freedom” project, which debuted in September at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., will create among students sympathy for refugees.

Other organizations do less showcasing. “We’re focused on what we’re doing to help people,” said Ken Isaacs, vice president for programs and government relations at U.S.-based Samaritan’s Purse, UNHCR’s largest partner in aiding refugees flooding into Europe: “We want to do what God has called us to and often that’s somewhat solitary.”

World Vision and LIRS, though, say direct presentations help to boost funds and awareness. Each launched “Refugee Sundays” for local churches to dedicate a service that would educate congregants about refugees and how to pray for them. Some congregations want to help but do not find specific methods of engagement.

Chad De Jager, pastor of Christ Community Church in Lemont, Ill., was in that group: eager to do something, but unsure where to start. In the past, he has connected with tangible aid projects. De Jager helped with the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which killed an estimated 160,000 and destroyed countless homes, by donating money and volunteering to rebuild.

In January, De Jager reluctantly attended a refugee summit. He sat near the back and wept as a displaced Syrian boy on a projector screen pleaded to return home. He then scheduled a Refugee Sunday at his church, displaying World Vision’s virtual reality film to 100 church members in the hope they too would care for refugees. Seventy congregants signed up for a weekly email prompt detailing steps to help: prayer points, writing their congressman, or donating to specific causes.

De Jager fears passion for refugees will soon fade. But, as he connected with a refugee boy wanting to fly back to Syria, he said he hoped his church members would connect via virtual reality with 13-year-old Ali, the street-corner seller in Lebanon. De Jager said data and politics, although important, rarely lead to change: “Stories are what changes people—people connect with stories.”

For all the emphasis on technology, Iraqi priest Alkhory’s moment came the old-fashioned way: Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels invited him onstage to tell his story in front of the Global Leadership Summit’s 7,200 attendees. The next morning, people waited in line by the dozen to shake his hand, thank him, and snap a selfie.


Evan Wilt Evan is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD reporter.

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