Empathetic conversations can help locals and refugees integrate through the use of immersive technologies.
Words by IPEK AKARSU
“It is supposed to be my home, but it’s really not.”
These are the words of Sara, a Kurdish woman who came to London as a refugee two years ago. She had to leave Iraq, her home, with the dreams of finding a safer place to live in and creating a better future for herself. Sara faced the challenges of continuously being relocated from one refugee camp to another for three years. When she finally arrived in London, the excitement of starting a new life got replaced with the feelings of loneliness and depression.
“When I first came to London, I had no one. I felt isolated,” she recalls, “I spent the first 6 months depressed.” She knew no one in her own neighbourhood. All of her friends were refugees, who felt equally alienated. She felt as if she wasn’t supposed to be here. London – home to a wide range of ethnicities and nationalities – failed to provide a welcoming environment for Sara to live in. Reduced social integration can have a big impact on the mental health of refugees (Turrini et al., 2017). Becoming ‘the other’ within her community had a significant impact on her emotional and mental well-being.
Sara is just one of the 68.5 million people who have been forced to leave their home (UNHCR, 2018). Another person who had to leave everything behind, Ronia, describes her experiences as: “When you flee Syria as a result of the crisis, you are a refugee… and that’s it.” Ronia faced depression for the first 8 months of her new life in the UK. She explains the main cause of her depression as: “Moving to a new country where I had no one: no family, no community.”
Immigration levels and the overall population of the UK are projected to increase over the next 25 years (Migration Observatory, 2018). The emphasis on maintaining social cohesion continues to grow as the cultural diversity in the UK becomes more and more apparent. The personal experiences of both Sara and Ronia illustrate the value of social belonging in the well-being of refugees. It is suggested that there is a growing need to embrace an intercultural perspective in order to build a new society that acts as a home for both locals and refugees (López-Bech and Zúñiga, 2017). These words underline the importance of reaching not only refugees, but also locals, in overcoming cultural division.
“We are all so different. We’re from different countries, we live within different cultures, but everyone has common grounds. And these are found within stories” says volunteer Erik Gerhardsson, who has been working with refugees since 2015. The power of stories in bringing people together should not be underestimated. Sharing personal stories allows people to overcome the preconceived ideas of each other through the generation of mutual empathy and trust (López-Bech and Zúñiga, 2017). Developing a sense of familiarity and belonging would benefit not only the refugees, but the community as a whole.
Everyone has a unique story to tell. However, sharing a personal and intimate story could be very challenging – especially for refugees who have had stressful experiences during migration. Neither Sara nor Ronia feel comfortable enough to share their stories with the locals in their communities. “When I start talking about my story, I feel weak” reflects Sara. Why do refugees feel less comfortable sharing their stories with locals? Difference in background? Lack of trust? How might we help locals and refugees engage in empathetic dialogues to create better-integrated communities?
Technology has the potential to prompt greater empathy in people. Virtual Reality (VR) is an emerging technology, currently used in various areas including the treatment of phobias, reduction of experience of pain, recovery from stress and understanding eating disorders (Schutte and Stilinović, 2017). It helps people see situations from a new point of view. This immersive technology has already been embraced by the UN to generate new perspectives on people living in refugee camps. Clouds Over Sidra is the first short film shot in VR for the UN, ending up twice as effective in raising funds than the campaigns run before (UNVR, n.d.). Despite its support in raising funds, the VR film holds a one-way storytelling approach. The wearer of the VR headset is immersed in the lives of refugees, leaving refugees outside of the interaction. Prompting two-way conversations could have a more positive impact in bridging the gap between locals and refugees. A big opportunity lies in the hands of designers to develop new ways of storytelling/story-exchanging through the use of immersive technologies to help build social cohesion in multi-cultural communities.
Gerhardsson, E. Interviewed by: Akarsu, I. (30th October 2018).
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