hope – Open Source Mechanic blog http://www.opensourcemechanic.com/blog cat /dev/random | strings | grep "For being ignorant to whom it goes I writ at random, very doubtfully" Tue, 10 May 2016 21:50:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 VR Empathy Machine links UN dignitaries with Syrian Refugees http://www.opensourcemechanic.com/blog/2015/11/vr-empathy-machine-links-un-dignitaries-with-syrian-refugees/ Sat, 28 Nov 2015 10:47:06 +0000 http://www.opensourcemechanic.com/blog/?p=984 “My name is Sidra. I am 12 years old… I have lived here in the Zaatari camp in Jordan for the last year and a half.” Filmmaker Chris Milk took his empathy machine to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to help us see and feel more about the lives of these vulnerable people.

Originally published in Green Prophet

The Statistics of Disaster

Each day, something terrible happens somewhere in this world. Families and communities are torn apart and thrown together in unfamiliar ways. Strangers who had found one another just barely tolerable become fellow humans, grieving needing and helping one another to survive.

The mechanical details of each tragedy are broadcast to the world via live satellite. While survivors are still struggling to breath, observers are consumed with the statistics of disaster. A category 5 hurricane, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake, the killers were quiet men who kept to themselves. The death toll was 404.

Do we need more emotional bandwith?

These facts spark our most primitive emotions first because these require the fewest bits of information. We fear that this tragedy might happen to us or we grow angry and seek to punish the real or imagined cause. Our despair grows as these darker motions consume us.

Empathy is a more complex emotion. According to a Princeton and Dukemigrant_mother_1936_syrian_refugee_2015 University study entitled, “Brain’s Social Network Implicated in Dehumanizing Others,” by Rick Nauert, MRI scans show that there is a part of the human brain associated with empathy. But prejudice, racism and socioeconomic status can turn off this empathic part of a person’s brain and enable one associated with disgust. Might this empathy gap explain why people tend to shun war refugees at the same time as they spend millions of dollars per day on wars?

Empathy seems to require more communication bandwidth. Sometimes it requires direct contact with loved-ones in the faraway land or a memories of a time when we ourselves also lived through such a tragedy. Music, photography and visual arts can also trigger empathy. Functional MRI studies have found that literature literally helps us get inside the minds of others by activating the same regions in our brain that tell us the story of who we are.

Whatever the cause for the connection, some people are able to feel deeply for the victims of disaster. Their empathy expands to with the scale of the disaster. The may lose sleep, grow physically sick or fall into a depression. Or they might feel compelled to do something, anything to try to fix whatever it is that is broken with the world, with the focus on the needs of the victims rather than the punishment of the cause.

Film and Virtual Reality as empathy machines

clouds_finalThe late film critic Roger Ebert considered empathy to be the most essential quality of a civilization, “We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Filmmaker Chris Milk is using Virtual Reality(VR) technology to increase our emotional bandwidth beyond what was possible in movies. VR technology has been with us for decades but it has been refined and its cost has dropped dramatically. Occulus rift, Google Cardboard and other VR devices will be hot sellers in the coming year. But Chris Milk didn’t wait. He shot “Clouds over Sidra” at Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.


This was the first Virtual reality film ever made for the United Nations. Chris explains that unlike film where the viewer is looking through a window frame, this technology takes the viewer through the frame so that they experience what it is like to be in the room with Sidra and sitting next to her in her school. The project gave UN dignitaries in Geneva Switzerland and it did seem to make a difference in their perceptions. Maybe it will for each of us. Try it yourself by downloading Google Play, VRSE and viewing “Clouds over Sidra” on VRSE, Google Cardboard or other virtual reality devices. Otherwise click like and share for a bit of virtual empathy.

Photos from Chris Milk’s “Clouds over Sidra” at VRSE.

Photo of Migrant mother (1936) by Dorthy Lange.

Photo of Syrian refugee woman(2015) by Washington Post

Thanks also to my Lebanese-American cousin Mud for her thoughtful piece on emotional responses to disasters, Laurie Balbo who works with Studio Syria and Collateral Repair; Gael at Dar al Yasmin for giving my family some non-virtual reality experience with Syrian refugees to help us imagine them not as anonymous faraway strangers, but as human beings.

Upcycling Kites with Syrian Refugee Children http://www.opensourcemechanic.com/blog/2015/11/upcycling-kites-with-syrian-refugee-children/ Tue, 24 Nov 2015 00:02:15 +0000 http://www.opensourcemechanic.com/blog/?p=970 kites1In the spring of 2014 we visited some friends in Jordan. Laurie and Jean of Studio Syria teach art and crafts to the people at the Zaatari refugee camp in Northern Jordan. Gaelle or DAY – Dar Al Yasmin and the brilliant Hayabi circus also work to brighten the lives of children at Zaatari village, just outside the refugee camp and give moms a break. Gaelle invited my family on what our daughter called “The most fun bus trip ever.” We sang songs to pass the time and lower relieve stress at checkpoints on the way to make kites with these Syrian refugee children. Here is the story  I originally published at Greenprophet.com:

Syria’s war has killed 150,000 people and forced more than three million from their homes. About a million of these refugees live in Jordan and as many as 200,000 have lived in the Zaatari refugee camp near Jordan’s Syrian border. This Green Prophet visited nearby Zaatari village where another 500 refugees live. One of the Syrian refugees who live here is a little girl with a broken shoe. This girl and dozens of other children of Zaatari village learned a little bit about recycling on one of the many cloudless spring days in the desert.

My family and I wanted to learn about the needs of Syrian refugees. So before our recent trip to Jordan, we asked Green Prophet’s Laurie Balbo about volunteer organizations there.

Laurie was a crucial boots-on-the-ground volunteer who performed a bureaucracy-defying miracle to get thousands of donated Irish knit hats to children at Zaatari before winter’s end and long before larger relief agencies were able to complete their winter clothing distribution.

Laurie works with Studio Syria and other organizations inside the Zaatari refugee camp. She was also familiar with a French NGO named Dar Al Yasmin (DAY), which means “House of Yasmin.” It was named after Syria’s fragrant national flower. DAY was formed in 2013 to focus on the needs of families living in Zaatari village.

DAY cofounder Gaelle Sundelin has the crucial mix of organization and language skills, leadership, creativity, optimism, patience, peacemaking and enough pragmatism to recognize that she can’t do it all herself. So for this typical Habaybi (caring love) event Gaelle recruited about 50 people from France, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Sudan and Somalia. The young men from these last two countries told me that wars had forced them to leave their homelands and that they hoped to return one day.

We met Gaelle and other DAY volunteers at a bus stop in Amman Jordan on Good Friday. We would fill two minibuses with a diverse group of teachers, artists, musicians, an acroclown circus and our family of four.

Some circus performers tuned their instruments while another handed out plastic clown noses. The troupe burst into song to lighten the mood at security checkpoints and shorten the journey to Zaatari. Our ten-year-old daughter called it the most fun bus ride she has ever been on.

While other volunteers worked on a variety of craft and entertainment projects, my family was asked to help make kites. Gaelle explained that we would make the kites out of plastic bags and cardboard so that the children would learn about recycling. During the long bus ride north, Gaelle wondered aloud whether we would have enough materials for the kites. I looked across dusty fields littered with plastic bags and wondered how we could ever run out.

Volunteers Muhammad Husseis and Feras Hamwy had built a flying prototype kite made from a plastic bag and decorated with Barcelona football club stickers. This was two days after Real Madrid took home the Spanish cup but the Barcelona stickers were a huge hit with the kids as were the Cars, Angry Birds, Spiderman and smiley face stickers. I only knew how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Arabic, but “Barcelona!!!” was a universal happy word that day.

This was the first valuable lesson for us, these kids aren’t so different from our own children or from others we’ve known in Ireland, the US and elsewhere.10177222_449222468513890_2253068009041345569_n

We used a hot glue gun to assemble the traditional diamond-shaped kites. It must be natural to feel somewhat useless when trying to help others overcome seemingly intractable problems. But I soon found my purpose as goalie trying to keep the children from burning themselves on the hot glue guns. I began to wish we had used duct tape! But then I noticed that these kids were different. Their level of chaotic energy was high but nothing beyond what I’d seen in the Irish Sunday school classes. The difference being that this room full of 30 kids seemed ever so slightly more manageable than some classes of 8-10 I’ve worked with in other parts of the world.

When the kites were finished, the children took them outside and we began to clean up. But the kites were so popular that the word soon spread and had a new influx of children eager to turn every scrap of plastic and cardboard they could find into a kite. At first we shrugged our shoulders and thought why not?

But when the chaos rose and we decided to pull the plug on the hot glue guns. As they cooled off, a 5 year-old boy presented his half-finished kite, flicked out a cigarette lighter and offered to reheat the glue for me. I told him, “La shukran. (No, thank you.)”

That was when someone carried in the little girl. She wore a white and1908263_449218371847633_7037255593842234598_n-e1399403080552 pink floral dress and a beaded bracelet she had made with another arts and crafts group. She handed me the broken shoe. A plastic jewel had fallen off of its buckle.

There was just enough heat left in the glue gun to stick it back on. These children did learn something about recycling on that day. And I learned that even the smallest act of kindness is never wasted.

Photos provided by Dar Al Yasmin (DAY.)