The UN is using virtual reality and an immersive “wormhole” to connect diplomats with Syrian refugees

The “wormhole” was a success with children–-and now maybe for world leaders?
The “wormhole” was a success with children–-and now maybe for world leaders?
Image: Shared Studios
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On their way to this month’s 70th United Nation’s General Assembly, the organization’s annual high-level meeting in New York, diplomats and world leaders will pass by a makeshift glass structure—both a glossy multi-media hub, and a gateway to an entirely different world.

The hub uses virtual reality to allow the UN attendees to see Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees through the eyes of a little girl. And, by using an immersive video portal, which will launch later this week, they will have the opportunity to have face-to-face conversations with residents of the camp.

The effort aims to put a human face on the high-level deliberations about the refugee crisis, which will likely dominate many conversations at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called on the meeting to be “one of compassion, prevention and, above all, action.”

Ban’s own UN Millennium Campaign is running the hub in New York along with along with Unicef and the United Nations Development Program. “Between the VR and the portal, we want to eliminate the power distance, to create empathy,” Mitchell Toomey, director of the campaign, tells Quartz. It isn’t possible to physically transport the diplomats to a refugee camp, but this comes pretty close.

The hub at the UN headquarters in New York
The hub at the UN headquarters in New York
Image: Hanna Kozlowska/Quartz

The war in Syria, now in its fifth year, has forced more than 4 million people out of the country. Many of them are now making their way to Europe, which is struggling to accommodate the influx of people. Meanwhile, millions more have stayed in the region, in overflowing refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. More than 80,000 people now live in Zaatari, where UNICEF collaborated with the artist collective Shared Studios to set up their own portal.

Through the eyes of Sidra

The UN hub filled with interactive screens is designed to promote the UN’s “Global Goals,” also known as Sustainable Development Goals—a set of 17 targets such as ending poverty or fixing climate change, which will be discussed during a pivotal summit of the General Assembly on Sept. 27-28. The Millennium Campaign is running the media center in cooperation with Facebook, which is there showcasing its internet.org, a controversial effort to bring affordable web access to developing countries. Mark Zuckerberg is expected to make an appearance.

One of the Millennium Campaign’s projects is “Clouds Over Sidra,” an acclaimed 9-minute virtual reality documentary, viewed using gear made by Samsung and Facebook’s Oculus Rift division. Filmed in Zaatri, the documentary follows the daily life of a young girl, dropping the viewer amidst the thousands of light-colored tents pitched on the Jordanian desert, where entire families live in barebones conditions.

The film shows a camp filled with children. ”There are more kids in Zaatari than adults right now,” Sidra says. “Sometimes I think we are the ones in charge.”

Watching “Clouds over Sidra” and other VR films at the hub.
Watching “Clouds over Sidra” and other VR films at the hub.
Image: Hanna Kozlowska/Quartz

After watching “Clouds over Sidra,” diplomats visiting the center will be able to have a real-time conversation with someone living in the camp through a portal, completing the simulated visit to Zaatari.

A wormhole to another world

The portal experience has already linked US cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington to locales in Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba, Mexico, and Honduras.

The creator of the portals, Amar Bakshi, describes them as a “global art project,” meant to connect communities that otherwise never come into close contact. The project’s website says its intent is to “to carve wormholes around the world.”

With the exception of the UN location, which will be housed within the multimedia hub, the portals are identical, and resemble shipping containers made from wood, covered with a corrugated golden metal sheet. They are relatively cheap ($2,750), and easy to set up, requiring Internet access, two 120V outlets, and a camera, computer, projector, screen, and lights.

The interiors are dark, acoustically isolated, and climate controlled. A person in Iran, for example, can enter into a portal, and talk directly to someone in Washington DC.

“It’s very much about two individuals meeting in an identical interior environment even though their exterior environment and their backgrounds, their context couldn’t be more different,” says Bakshi.

The key is to have people make eye contact “within what feels to be a shared space,” he says. The conversations take about 20 minutes.

Some of the portals are designed to be permanent, some of them temporary. The UN portal will be only temporary, but the Zaatari one will become a fixed part of the network. Shared Studios is also planning portals in Zimbabwe, China, and Iraq.

Their purpose, Bakshi adds, is “for people to have a way to communicate with different communities which are often only accessible unidirectionally, like when you watch a YouTube clip or read a media story.

During one visit to a portal, a Washington hip hop artist collaborated with rappers in Afghanistan; during another, an Iranian-American dancer performed live for his family in Tehran. Elementary school-students from the US capital learned in astonishment that their Iranian counterparts played video games.

A bridge between high-level talks and their subjects

Bakshi said the UN-Zaatari link is one-of-a-kind. “It is about world leaders and decision-makers talking directly to people in the camps, not landing with an entourage, but being an individual in this space, and vice versa,” he says.

Gabo Arora, creator of “Clouds Over Sidra,” who approached Bakshi about the collaboration, adds that “there will be an element of spontaneity, an element of direct conversation that is not planned,” as opposed to the “high level proceedings that are very curated, very controlled.”

Arora is counting on the connection’s emotional resonance—the kind that was so strongly evoked by the image of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi. “It’s because stories and images seem to be changing public opinion, now we want to do this in a very targeted way for certain people,” he says. The Zaatari side organizers plan to have many children and youth enter the portal.

Although any UNGA attendee will be welcome to enter the portal, the organizers are approaching certain delegations and individuals. Arora wouldn’t disclose who they are, but, he said they are being “strategic,” and coming at it from an “advocacy angle.” He says his motivation has always been a plea for resettlement and a political solution to the crisis.

Arora cites the industriousness of the refugees at Zaatari—the bakeries, the barber shops, the commerce. He hopes that when the delegates, and later on, the public, talk to the refugees, they would realize that any country that took them in would benefit from their spirit: “they are intelligent, they are resilient, they are ingenious.”

When the diplomats are faced with important decisions, votes, Arora hopes that after visiting the hub, they would “have a real and true understanding of what their decisions mean.”

The portal conversations usually include prompts from the creators, such as “What would make today a good day for you?” It will be tricky how to curate the Zaatari-UN connection, Arora says. It’s a sensitive situation when “you have one person who holds this unbelievable amount of hierarchical power, relatively, to another person.”

The project aims to shift that balance, even ever so slightly.