Youth at CLAY experience life in a refugee camp—virtually

Youth at the Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth (CLAY) gathering try on virtual reality headsets to see what life is like in Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Joelle Kidd
Published August 21, 2018

As you look down at the small, narrow room, it’s hard to imagine a family of six living there. The walls of the tent are almost bare. The ground is covered with a carpet and a pile of cushions.

“I have a big family—three brothers. One is a baby. He cries a lot,” says the voice of Sidra. Sidra is a young girl who lives in the Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan. Her family left Syria and has lived in the camp for the past year and a half. “I ask my father if I cried when I was a baby, and he says I did not. I think I was a stronger baby than my brother.”

Turning your head, you follow two young boys and their mother as they leave the tent, their baby brother toddling after them.

But from there, the image fades to black. This tour is a virtual one, an immersive video entitled Clouds Over Sidra, created in partnership with the United Nations for use with virtual reality (VR) equipment.

At the Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth (CLAY) gathering in Thunder Bay, Ont., August 15-19, youth aged 14-19 had the opportunity to don a VR headset provided by Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR) and experience life in a refugee camp through Sidra’s eyes.

CLWR community relations director Carla Blakley and administrative assistant Becky Longhurst offered the VR experience as part of a display booth promoting CLWR’s work resettling refugees in Canada.

When the headset is worn, the video reacts to the viewer’s movements; he or she can look up, down or turn 360 degrees to see the scene from any angle. Photo: Becky Longhurst

While the VR format draws youth in, Blakley says that for many, an interest in seeing what refugee camps are like stems from personal connection. “So many kids here have Syrian friends in their school, or their churches have been involved in settling refugees, especially from Syria.” Immersing themselves in the world of Sidra and her family “helps to deepen their understanding of what their friends have gone through.”

She adds, “This is a form of reconciliation that we’re working towards, having a deeper understanding of refugees, and what they’re living through and what they’ve been through, what life in the refugee camp was like.”

To show the video, Blakley and Longhurst load Clouds Over Sidra onto a smartphone, which is then clipped into a plastic VR headset. When the headset is worn, the video appears in front of the viewer’s eyes, and reacts to his or her movements; the viewer can look up, down or in a 360-degree view to see the scene at any angle.

At CLAY, headset-clad teens next to the CLWR display booth wandered forward, turning their heads wildly, exploring the virtual world. The result is so immersive, Blakley and Longhurst recall, that at a previous gathering where they showed the video, an 80-year-old woman who decided to try it ended up kicking at the virtual soccer ball that was flying towards her.

To help drive home the reality of life in a refugee camp, Blakley and Longhurst also provided a visual representation of what refugees living in camps like Za’atri might eat on a daily basis: a small plate of red beans and rice and a piece of flatbread.

Blakley says they offered the youth this ration as a substitute for one of their meals. “Some kids just took the beans and rice as a meal because they knew their friends had eaten that in a refugee camp and wanted to be more in solidarity with their friends,” she says. “One of the girls [attending CLAY] had lived in a refugee camp and said, ‘That is exactly what I would have eaten.’ ”

Experiencing life in a refugee camp helps youth “deepen their understanding of what their friends have gone through,” says CLWR community relations director Carla Blakley. Photo: Becky Longhurst

They also provided the youth with recipes and a challenge to eat the ration meal for a week. “Here [the meal] was a choice that they could say yes or no to. In these camps, this is what you eat every day,” says Blakley, adding that in some cases children are born in refugee camps and live there for years before their family is resettled.

“It was interesting, because lots of kids went, ‘I’d rather eat that than my wraps and coleslaw.’ And I said, ‘But would you rather eat that over wraps and coleslaw every day?’

“And then they kind of sat back,” says Longhurst. “You could kind of see the realization hit after a little bit…Every day—what does that mean? We talked a little bit about what would happen if your choice was taken away.”

According to the UN Refugee Agency, 68.5 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes, which the agency calls the “highest levels of displacement on record.” Blakley says these numbers are expected to continue to rise due to the increased effects of climate change and ongoing violent conflicts across the globe.

CLWR is a specialized agency of the Lutheran community in Canada funded through public donations, provincial and federal grants, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and Lutheran Church–Canada. ELCIC and the Anglican Church of Canada have a full-communion relationship.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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