Virtual Reality Can Help Better Integrate Syrian Refugees into Canada: WCDM Keynote

World Conference on Disaster Management speaker demonstrates unique three-step approach from the field that could help manage Canada’s refugee effort

CBJ In the wake of the end of the first phase of Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement program – which welcomed its 25,000th refugee in late February – Canadians should be reminded to see refugees not as victims, but as survivors capable of moving forward. One way to achieve this goal is through the use of advanced 3D technologies such as virtual reality.

That’s the message from Desi Matel-Anderson, Chief Wrangler of the Field Innovation Team (FIT), a Utah-based non-profit organization that deploys volunteers from across the globe to respond to disasters and tackle disaster reduction and resiliency efforts. A keynote presenter at Toronto’s upcoming World Conference on Disaster Management, to be held June 7-8 at the International Centre, Matel-Anderson will share lessons learned from FIT teams deployed in Lebanon to assist in the Syrian refugee crisis, and will demonstrate how the company’s unique use of 3D technology and its three-step design process can effectively shape any disaster response, including right here at home.

“Even in a country that’s incredibly welcoming like Canada, there will be challenges when it comes to community integration and establishing a permanent home for refugee families,” said Matel-Anderson, who believes her team’s approach could easily be applied to help Syrian refugees resettling to Canada. “Refugees don’t want to be seen as people who are needy or can’t provide for themselves. Rather, they are survivors and our mission is to empower them to create their own cutting-edge disaster solutions,” she said.

According to Matel-Anderson, an effective way for Canadians to gain a better understanding of the issues faced by refugees is through the use of 360-degree virtual reality technology, as her team utilized with success in Lebanon. “Using a virtual reality headset such as Google Cardboard or the Oculus Rift, anyone can experience a day in the life of a refugee and put themselves in that person’s shoes, experiencing his or her trials and tribulations first-hand through the eyes of the camera lens,” she said. “From there, Canadians – whether professional social workers or the average citizen – can be more empathetic to the refugees’ struggles, better relate to them and find solutions to help.”

On the ground, the FIT three-step process – called a Do Tank – starts with situational awareness. Teams of volunteers are deployed to “scope out a mission” which means fully understanding the implications of what’s going on. Then they map out exactly who requires help and why, and finally, bring different groups together to devise creative solutions to the problems outlined, often applying leading-edge innovations and social media. It may sound simple, but it works to keep emergency managers and responders focused on the right solution in the face of complex situations, she said.

To help settle Syrian refugees in Canada, for example, the FIT process could be applied to examine the overall resettlement program, determine the biggest challenge facing refugees right now, and assemble a diverse team – including social workers, community organizations, government representatives, community residents and Syrian refugees themselves – to implement creative solutions. Potential challenges include housing, jobs, education and language barriers.

In Lebanon, FIT teams are working with local groups to assist 1.8 million Syrian refugees in dire need of basic necessities. They are also engaging professional actors and thespians to host workshops designed to reduce tensions between refugees and host countries.

“Tension can and will arise,” notes Matel-Anderson. “People are going to feel stress in different ways that are hard to understand unless you’ve been a displaced refugee yourself. Our process is one way to keep everyone focused on generating positive results.”

FIT volunteers represent a diverse skill set, ranging from additive manufacturers, educators and artists, to engineers, community justice workers and roboticists. Since 2010, they have been deployed to assist in several large disasters, including the Boston marathon bombings where Canadian FIT volunteers played a vital communications role by texting a “play-by-play” of external events to the emergency operations centre, using information aggregated from various social media sites. FIT teams also assisted in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, empowering local Nepali women to be advocates in their community, helping to spread an important public health message about the spread of disease through touch.

In her WCDM address, entitled Innovating disasters in real-time (June 8, 3:45 p.m.), Matel-Anderson will share her firsthand experience dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis overseas and walk attendees through a mock disaster response to further illustrate the effectiveness of FIT’s three-step process.

WCDM is the largest, most diverse global conference of its kind in North America, attracting attendees from more than 40 countries and featuring more than 50 top-rated educational sessions, training workshops, robust exhibits, powerful global networking opportunities and international speakers in all areas of emergency management, business continuity and disaster recovery. With a theme of ‘before, during and after’ a crisis, delegates will gain insight into innovative solutions on how to improve plans for disaster preparedness, response and recovery, including tips on how businesses, communities and government can adapt to global and local

threats, and sustain operations and communities at home  and abroad during times of crisis.

For more information or to register for the event, visit