Metro Morning

UNICEF uses virtual reality to bring donors into Syrian refugee camp

One of the world’s biggest humanitarian organizations is hoping virtual reality will help people grasp the challenges faced by thousands of Syrians still living in refugee camps.

App, viewer allow anyone to experience life in the Za'atari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert

UNICEF's new project, UNICEF360, uses virtual reality technology to give donors an inside look into the sprawling massive Za'atari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert, where many Syrian refugees are living. (UNICEF)

One of the world's biggest humanitarian organizations is hoping virtual reality will help people grasp the challenges faced by thousands of Syrians still living in refugee camps.

UNICEF has launched a new project, called UNICEF360°, that takes viewers inside a massive Za'atari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert, where a young girl named Sidra is living.

The virtual reality viewer tucks a smartphone into a special cardboard viewing box. (UNICEF)
"You see where she lives, you see where she goes to school, you see where she plays … and as important as these spaces are, they're not your typically places where children would enjoy themselves," Sharon Avery, UNICEF Canada's chief development officer, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

The 360-degree view, Avery said, is "the way we see children."

For those who see it, it can be revolutionary.

The footage is shown on a smartphone that fits inside a small cardboard box — essentially creating a makeshift headset. "UNICEF has a long history with cardboard boxes," Avery said, laughing.

While holding the box to your face, you can look in all directions as children run toward you and Sidra's voice narrates what you're taking in.

The four-minute film, directed by Chris Milk who previously created music videos for the likes of Kanye West and U2, was captured with special camera rig with some 16 cameras.

Avery said UNICEF is already planning to do a similar project in Uganda.

Avery said the films are a "powerful" way to show donors they are making a difference by letting them feel like they're actually seeing the projects they're supporting. Avery said in this case, the video also puts a human face on the refugee crisis, rather than focusing on the political angles of the issue.

Sidra, meanwhile, is now 14. She still lives at the refugee camp, where she now has a 2-year-old sister, Souad, as well as a 9-month-old cousin named Wassim, both of whom were born in Jordan.

Sidra is thriving in the camp, Avery said, but still longs to go home someday.

You can download the film, called Clouds over Sidra, on a UNICEF app and the organization is offering a free cardboard viewer with the purchase of one of its "survival gifts" this holiday season. 


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