THE BLOG
09/14/2016 11:46 am ET Updated Sep 15, 2017

Unleashing The Humanitarian Impulses Within

What does it take to get us to act on our instincts as humanitarians? Our hope for the future relies on our collective ability to mitigate the impact of war and conflict, climate change and cultural differences. Wave after wave of refugees and displaced people flowing from these challenges indicate that global efforts to do so are failing. Today, according to UNHCR estimates, there are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world, though experts suspect the actual number is closer to 120 million. Displacement now ranks as one of the biggest humanitarian crises of all time and all signs point to it becoming a permanent and ever-expanding problem.

Like many others in North America, I had no personal connection to the conflict in Syria or the plight of refugees stemming from it. In September 2105 at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in China, I met Gabo Arora, the Creative Director of the United Nations. This chance encounter helped me gain greater understanding of the scale and urgency of the refugee crisis. The virtual reality technology he employed to do this helped to awaken the humanitarian impulses within me.

Gabo is on a mission to change the way the United Nations gets people to pay attention to their issues. Historically, the UN has written reports then enlisted celebrities like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney to attract the media and humanize their work. Gabo is on a mission to expand on these efforts by engaging people on social media. Viral media campaigns and YouTube celebrities have now become an effective part of the UN's approach. Before getting involved in humanitarian work, Gabo studied film at NYU. Given his interest in both film and technology, someone introduced him to Chris Milk, one of the pioneers of virtual reality. A month later in the fall of 2014, Gabo was on a plane to Jordan with a VR camera and a crew of one in tow. At the Zaatari refugee camp he shot Clouds Over Sidra, a brilliant 8-minute documentary that tells the story of life inside the camp through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl named Sidra.

Experiencing Clouds Over Sidra in virtual reality was so immersive I felt like I had teleported into the camp. In the post-screening discussion, it became clear that everyone in the room was feeling newfound empathy for refugees. My work as the CEO of Artscape focuses on leveraging the power of art and culture as a catalyst for the change, growth and transformation of place. I quickly realized that Gabo was a kindred spirit, someone who was using art and technology for social change.

I was unsure about how to turn the empathy I was feeling into action until a second encounter with Gabo - again facilitated by the World Economic Forum at this year's Annual Meeting in Davos. It was there we hatched the idea for a collaboration to combine the VR experience with a community engagement process and a call-to-action that aims to build empathy for refugees and support for resettlement efforts. We will be launching The Sidra Project at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. In the months that follow, facilitators will take the project into board rooms, classrooms, public venues and private residences with hundreds of screenings for gatherings of 15 to 60 people. If it works, we'll explore ways to take this initiative across Canada and around the world.

Never before has Artscape been involved in a project where partners have come together so quickly and enthusiastically. In short order, a few hundred thousand dollars was raised and 25 partners have joined the effort. Among them are leaders in Canadian resettlement efforts who have helped develop a menu of ways that people can volunteer, donate and sponsor refugees to come to Canada or help them find jobs and housing once they are here. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible to translate empathy into action.

The optimist in me makes me believe that humanitarian impulses are much stronger within most of us than our responses to global issues suggest. Time will tell whether The Sidra Project is an effective strategy in building empathy for refugees and support for their resettlement. If early interest in this experiment is any indication, we may be onto something that could make us all feel and act more like citizens of the world.

Find out more about The Sidra Project at www.TheSidraProject.ca and follow the project on Twitter @TheSidraProject #Sidra360

You can visit www.unvr.org for more information about UNVR's work and to watch Clouds Over Sidra and other VR films from the UN. TheUNVR's app can be downloaded on iOS, android and oculus stores.