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4 storytelling projects that build empathy for refugees

4 storytelling projects that build empathy for refugees

By Nesima Aberra

With the world still reeling after the tragic Paris attacks, there has unfortunately been a huge backlash against refugees and immigrants in Europe and the U. S. The rhetoric around refugees has been incredibly hate-filled and inflammatory from a grassroots level all the way to the political elite.

Politicians no longer want to accept refugees in their country because they could be ISIS and/or a drain on our resources. Ordinary citizens are afraid of refugees and are pushing back against resettlement in their communities.

As a writer and human rights advocate, I am concerned about the lack of empathy toward refugees and immigrants, as well as the simplistic narratives told by mainstream media. Refugees are a vulnerable population who are fleeing war, violence and persecution in their home countries, and don’t deserve to be met with such overwhelming ignorance and fear.

As an Eritrean-American, I also yearn for more diverse representation of refugees and immigrants in mainstream media. We need more empathy in the news and politics if we want to see more effective and dignified responses to our broken humanitarian aid system and migration policies.

Projects like these could help make that happen with the use of empowering, innovative storytelling.

1. Two Billion Miles

You may have thought you understood how difficult and treacherous an experience it is for refugees to hand their lives over to smugglers in order to cross the Mediterranean Sea, but Two Billion Miles really takes you there. This online interactive project by Channel 4 News shows you what a refugee goes through to get to Europe. According to the site, two billion miles was the total distance traveled by refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Europe in 2015.

The project has multiple journey options beginning in one of six different cities in Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia or Syria. It’s much like a choose-your-own-adventure story, where you face very real scenarios like trusting smugglers to get you across the Mediterranean Sea, having to choose whether to stay in a refugee camp, risking it all to cross over into Europe and trying to find work to get some money.

The visuals are what really make this project come alive, because you can see raw and gritty photos and videos of the whole journey as you attempt to make it successfully or find out you’re getting sent back home.

2. Ghost Boat

Medium has been chronicling a mystery focused on a boat that was supposed to carry around 243 refugees from Libya to Italy last summer. The boat vanished, but the team at Medium, along with journalists and other investigators, are trying to figure out what happened and bring closure to the families of the victims. Ghost Boat readers are invited to read each installment of the story, review the data and add their own ideas about where to take the investigation.

I’m really happy the Ghost Boat team is lifting up the story of Eritreans, the biggest group of refugees after Syrians, and highlighting the oppressive human rights and political suffering inside the country that’s driving thousands of people out every month.

Although it does make me a little uneasy to see the lives of real humans become a source of entertainment and intrigue for an audience, I appreciate the fact that opening up the investigation to more people and crowdsourcing the work to review shipping records, witnesses and other data could potentially make a real difference and find justice for the lost refugees.

Much like Serial, Ghost Boat is an unfolding story, and the writers don’t know what to expect or how long it’ll last. So far, there are six episodes out, and you can sign up to receive weekly e-mail updates when the next ones are published. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a clue that influences the investigation!

3. Clouds Over Sidra

This award-winning virtual reality documentary, created by the United Nations Senior Advisor Gabo Arora and filmmaker Chris Milk, brings you up close and personal in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. The main character is a 12-year-old Syrian refugee, Sidra, who gives a 360-degree view of her life. Thanks to the brilliant technology from VRSE, you can experience Sidra’s story not just through her words, but through her eyes.

From the tall wiry fences against the dark sky to the small, crowded classrooms in the schools to the children playing football on a small plot, it’s heartwarming to see such small, intimate parts of a young child’s day. Some of my favorite lines in the film are when Sidra says she will not be 12 forever and will not be in Zaatari forever.

Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan.
Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Photo from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Refugees’ hope and resilience refugees is inspiring and makes me even more determined to continue advocating for their safety. There are 130,000 Syrians living in the Zaatari refugee camp, but taking time to peer into one child’s story can move you to want to learn more and care more. You can now watch the film on the VRSE.app on your mobile phone or through a virtual-reality headset like the Oculus Rift to get the full effect.

4. The 19 Million Project

This global project is a unique collaboration between activists, journalists, designers and coders to create diverse types of content and data about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean in order to raise awareness and find solutions. In November, The 19 Million Project held a summit in Rome to begin exploring new ways of telling the stories of refugees using human-centered design. Organisations like Google, the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute and Fusion Network are all partners or sponsors of the initiative.

It’s incredibly exciting to see that professionals across various disciplines who all care about ending the crisis are contributing, and that media advocacy is getting more support as a method of social change. While there haven’t been any big reveals yet, The 19 Million Project is definitely something to keep an eye on in the coming months.

Nesima Aberra is a writer and strategic communicator for social good. She is currently a graduate student in International Media at American University in Washington, D.C. Her interests include creative writing, art, non-profits, social entrepreneurship, human rights and diaspora issues. You can also follow Nesima on Twitter.

Featured image shows Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving in Greece. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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4 thoughts on “4 storytelling projects that build empathy for refugees

  1. […] See full #story on 4 storytelling projects that build empathy for refugees | WhyDev […]

  2. […] Ignorance leads to fear of refugees and even hatred. Nesima Aberra looks at 4 new efforts to tell meaningful stories & build more empathy.  […]

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