Andrew Grofe, '18, adjusts his virtual reality glasses in a simulation in Coxe Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. Lehigh is one of the first universities to see the screening of two virtual reality movies from the UN. (Madi Welker/B&W Staff)

Virtual reality glasses simulate refugee experience

Chenfang Wang, '14G, reacts to seeing through the virtual reality glasses for the first time in a simulation in Coxe Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. The screening included two movies, one on Syrian refugees and another on Ebola. (Madi Welker/B&W Staff)

Chenfang Wang, ’14G, reacts to a simulation through virtual reality glasses in Coxe Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. The screening included two movies, one on Syrian refugees and another on Ebola. (Madi Welker/B&W Staff)

Members of the Lehigh community strapped on goggles in Coxe Hall on Wednesday and were transported to the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan or the streets of Liberia by way of virtual reality glasses.

Participants viewed one of two eight-minute films through the glasses. “Waves of Grace,” one of the two films, followed Decontee Davis through the streets, into the schools and around the hospitals of West Point, Liberia, which was hit by the Ebola epidemic. “Clouds Over Sidra” showed the day-to-day life of Sidra, a refugee girl who lived in a Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan for over a year. The glasses immersed the viewer through the use of sight and sound.

Viewers watched Sidra as she kicked a soccer ball across a field and sat beside her in a cramped classroom. The video then panned over the refugee camp, which is filled with thousands of makeshift structures and Syrian refugees.

In 2015, Pennsylvania received 112 Syrian refugees for resettlement, according to Fourteen of those Syrian refugees settled in Allentown, which is home to one of the largest Syrian communities in the county.

Lutheran Children and Family Services works to resettle these refugees in the Lehigh Valley. Sarah Stanlick, director of the Center for Community Engagement, said Lehigh has partnered with Lutheran Children and Family Services for past six years to help the refugees.

Students in the Global Citizenship program help the local refugees with cultural orientation classes and teach English as a Second Language classes as well as computer job skills.

Stanlick hopes these glasses will help students to become more empathetic toward refugees and more aware of the refugee crises.

“There is something very powerful that happens when individuals can empathize with others, and being in a virtual reality realm can be very transformative,” Stanlick said. “It is a very immersive experience that gives people the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Kristin Gutekunst, project manager for the United Nations, worked to bring the glasses to Lehigh to promote the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Gutekunst said the goal of the virtual reality glasses was to give people a firsthand experience of different crises that occur around the world.

“The real magic is how people feel about the videos and how they accept them,” Gutekunst said. “We are using the visual reality for educational purposes and as a tool to spur intelligent conversation within communities.”

Bill Hunter, director of International Outreach at Lehigh, used the glasses in September and had also been working to bring them to campus.

“The experience is so intense and so real, so vivid,” Hunter said. “I knew that I had to bring it to campus. It’s as close as we can get to understanding the lives of the people in the refugee camps.”

Lehigh is the third university to have access to the virtual reality glasses. Registration for the 160 spots to use the glasses filled in less than 24 hours, and Hunter said he was surprised at the response rate.

Lehigh will also host an event on Thursday where a refugee will share his experiences and those who work with refugees will share their perspectives on the refugee crisis.

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