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Reuniting Undocumented Immigrant Families with VR

VR Postcards offer a slice of culture from a home they can’t visit.

The Family Reunions Project is trying to bring some comfort and understanding to an extremely complicated, often heartbreaking situation—undocumented immigration. How? By using the power of VR to reunite undocumented immigrants who can’t return to their home country due to immigration laws or financial issues.

Family and friends from these immigrants’ home countries make tailored VR tours of homes, old neighborhoods, and messages from family members in immersive snippets called “VR Postcards.” Though it’s not the complete answer to the problem, it is a temporary solution to reunite families that have not seen each other for years.

The project began when Alvaro Morales, an undocumented immigrant from Huancayo, Peru, tried a Google Cardboard to virtually explore the Palace of Versailles in Paris. The technology blew him away. He was impressed that something so simple and made of such simple materials could allow him to “cross borders” with ease.

After his first VR experience, Morales spent months talking with friends about it, which eventually led to the New York State Youth Leadership Council—an organization that offers assistance to young immigrants—stepping in to arrange for introduction with Frisly Soberanis, himself an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala with a video production background. Their conversation was brief, but that’s all that was needed. The two came up with a plan to start building VR experiences in hopes of connecting families.

In one example of a VR Postcard that I experienced, a woman named Marleny is wearing a Samsung Gear headset and she’s already feeling emotional as she explores her grandparent’s backyard in VR. After a few moments, she takes off the headset and it’s obvious the impact the virtual postcard had on her. The woman is in fact, the mother of Frisly Soberanis, and she has not returned to Guatemala in 15 years.

“The greatest asset that virtual reality has for the Family Reunions Project is it can transport people,” said Morales. “The goal of the the Family Reunions Project is to apply virtual reality technology towards a community that needs transportation the most, which is displaced and immigrant communities.”

Morales explained that making something so powerful isn’t as hard as you might imagine.

“It’s extremely easy to make the VR Postcard emotional experiences, because it’s tailored for the family,” said Morales. “It’s a message from someone you love, someone you haven’t seen them in a decade, and you see how they’ve changed.”

As impressed as he is with virtual reality, Morales does not want you to focus on the technology powering the VR Postcard, but more importantly, focus on the “cruelty of a lot of families only being able to see their loved ones through silly virtual reality goggles on their faces.” Some families haven’t seen each other in 10 to 20 years; if they left, they’d risk the lives they’ve built up.

Each VR postcard is created through a volunteer “VR shooter” within the immigrant communities. Morales and Soberanis give each VR shooter a 360 camera such as a Samsung Gear 360 or a iZuger Z4XL, along with some quick training, and then send them off to record footage. In some cases, Morales (again: an undocumented immigrant), will himself travel and record the 360 footage.

The Family Reunions Project is now on to the next phase, which is getting the public to really care about these personal stories with a focus on the storytelling, by empowering the participant and making them feel transported—that they’ve challenged the limitations of borders; much like how Morales felt when he explored the Palace of Versailles in Paris.

Morales said that he wants the general public to see a human face associated with each virtual reality experience, that there is an actual human story powering each VR Postcard.

“We want to leverage the buzz around VR to bring the issue of family separation to the forefront,” he said. “Immigration is its own silo of politics…the mix of tech and immigration, it’s something we haven’t seen before.”

So far, the Family Reunions Project has helped bring together 15 families in Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador and Brazil, thanks to grants from organizations  such as Culture StrikeFUSE and the Tribeca Film Institute. Currently the organization is still looking to help reunite immigrant families by encouraging people to participate in the program simply by visiting their website and applying.

Lastly, Morales goes back to something he told me earlier in my interview with him.  He stresses to me, “if there’s one thing I want your article to mention, it’s that we do not want to glorify the technology of VR. I want you to focus on the cruelty of the families having to use virtual reality to be together as a family.”

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