How a “cutting edge” non-profit used VR to help Syrian refugees

When you think about how residents from Canada and other countries have helped Syrian refugees, virtual reality (VR) technology probably isn’t the first method that leaps to mind.

Yet VR turned out to be the primary tool that a group of volunteers from the Heber City, Utah-based non-profit organization Field Innovation Team (FIT) used to help a group of Syrian refugees learn how to evacuate their camp during a visit to the Algarhih camp in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which lies near Syria’s border, this past March.

“The camp leader, Ali, started telling a story about these fires that broke out in the camp in June 2015, how they lost a young Syrian child, and how they feared they may lose others in future fires,” FIT CEO Desi Matel-Anderson, who led the visit, tells “He wanted to know how we could help them spread awareness and create a sense of preparedness.”

Since 2010, FIT has sent volunteers from a variety of disciplines, both technical (engineering, programming, robotics) and humanitarian (educators, artists, community justice workers) to disaster zones across the world, where they have developed what the organization calls “cutting edge” solutions to emergencies including the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, last year’s earthquake in Nepal, and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

Desi Matel-Anderson
Desi Matel-Anderson

Though technology is often involved, many solutions simply require finding the easiest, least resistant (i.e. technology-free) path, Matel-Anderson says, though others, such as March’s visit to the Algarhih camp, require volunteers to create technology on the fly.

“We’ve found that if we want to have an exponential impact and scale, technology is an incredible tool for doing that,” she says.

The technology that FIT teams wind up having access to can also be surprising, she says, citing Facebook and Instagram as tools that are frequently available.

“The neat thing is, everyone in the camp had a smartphone or access to a smartphone,” Matel-Anderson says. “So our VR team came together with Ali’s team, and we used our 360 cameras to record everything and create a virtual evacuation route.”

“Not only did we share it with the camp leadership, but they can now download the evacuation routes and walk anyone else who enters the camp through this virtual realm,” she continues. “It’s great.”

Though Matel-Anderson isn’t certain how many people were living in the camp, she estimates that more than 1000 people saw the video, which represented only one of several initiatives by FIT during a trip that helped thousands of Syrian refugees, she says.

Others included a theatre-based project that brought Syrians with opposing viewpoints together and encouraged them to collaborate on performances that illustrated each others’ points of view; and the development of a chatbot that communicated with refugees about their experiences until they were ready to ready to receive professional help, at which point the bots connected them with therapists and psychologists who could provide real-time mental health resources and psychological services.

Whenever FIT approaches an emergency, the organization utilizes a three-step process:

  • Establish situational awareness by deploying teams of volunteers to analyze what is happening and where;
  • Define the challenge, identifying exactly who requires help and why;
  • Collaborate between groups to create solutions to whatever problems have been outlined.

Matel-Anderson believes North American companies and their employees could learn a great deal from FIT’s solutions, both when responding to their own emergencies and when they need to look at a situation from another party’s point of view.

“We may not be in the Beqaa Valley and worried about evacuating a camp of 250 tents, but… we need to learn to step into other peoples’ shoes,” she says.

Matel-Anderson will be sharing how FIT used VR to help Syrian refugees during a keynote address at this year’s World Conference on Disaster Management (WCDM), which will be held on June 7 and 8 in Toronto. For more information, visit the WCDM’s site here.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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