Saturday, February 27, 2016

Virtual reality/actual reality: NATO bombings in Belgrade

In general, I don't make much of an effort to stay up-to-date on technological advances (too many, too often). However, it's been next to impossible to ignore the mounting buzz about virtual reality, aka VR. Mark Zuckerburg even invested $2 billion in a VR headset last fall, and he has a solid track record for fulfilling needs people don't even know they have. While VR has many projected uses, I'm interested in it as a storytelling device. Milica Zec, a Serbian filmmaker living in New York, created a VR film/experience that transports viewers to Belgrade during the NATO bombings at the turn of the 21st century. Like most of my friends in Belgrade, Milica spent a year of her upbringing in a city ablaze. Milica's presented this VR project at the Sundance film festival last month, and this article includes trailers, photos, and descriptions of other VR-related projects at Sundance.

Serbs often bitterly bring up the bombings describing it as a time of great - and recent - suffering they endured. Last Saturday as I walked around the city, I noticed hundreds of people, possibly a couple thousand, gathered in the park across from Parliament. This was the largest protest I've seen in Belgrade this year. Organized by ultra-conservative, nationalist movements, they marched to express their disappointment with a new cooperation agreement between Serbia and NATO while holding "Putin for President" and "expel NATO ASAP" signs.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Tech part two

During the refugee training a few weeks ago, communication emerged as the foremost and most flawed part of the response to this crisis. I knew all too well that language barriers hinder communication between refugees and volunteers, but I hadn't considered communication between refugee camps/aid centers throughout Europe and how long-standing geopolitical tensions in the Balkans constrain aid to refugees.

For instance, refugees might desperately need jackets one week so all of the camps request jackets and then the following week the jackets become redundant. Or perhaps one camp will serve refugees bad food (once a camp in Macedonia gave out spoiled canned fish) and by the time the refugees got to Serbia and Croatia, many of them were sick. Volunteers typically don't know when or how many refugees are coming, but if they knew the special needs of the incoming group then they could make proper arrangements as they wait for them to arrive.

Here's where technology should fix the problem. There are a few apps and WhatsApp group text message threads that link the camp leaders, but for one reason or another people don't use these tools fully. I'm not a member of these threads, but when speaking with people who are I've gotten the impression that their political vexations curb their participation. This may sound petty, and to a certain extent it is, but these tensions course through every layer of life in the Balkans so it no longer surprises me.

Though I don't use WhatsApp to correspond with volunteers, I do receive messages from refugees and migrants whom I befriended as they continue north. This morning a group from Afghanistan sent a photo where they posed in front of an Austrian flag. Instagram also lets me keep tabs on acquaintances who were eager to connect virtually. These photos add a dose of harsh reality to my otherwise ordinary (read:somewhat superficial) feed. Though the photos themselves blend in as highly edited pictures of monuments, landscapes, and friends having a good time, just beneath the surface lies hardships that preceded those smiles and encumbrances still to come.

Last of all, smart phones have helped to crack down on the smuggling epidemic. Refugees will take photos, potentially endangering themselves, of smugglers and send them to volunteers who then take it up with the police. Some NGOs in Belgrade send workers to hostels and bars in Belgrade where smugglers are known to convene in order to take photos and match them with the visual evidence police have gathered.

The most obvious role technology plays in this and, well, everything these days is getting the word out and immediately analyzing that word from a variety of viewpoints. This crisis has been a non-stop story for months now, and everyone can access the constant stream of new developments, critiques, and policies. For better or for worse, this particular crisis changes its shape so often it likely won't run the risk that other ongoing stories face in saturating the airwaves and thus causing consumers to lose interest. Here's hoping, anyway, because this story is not going away anytime soon.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Stateless yet tech-savvy

The vital role that technology plays in the life of a migrant was apparent from the start, but over the past two weeks it has proved more varied than ever before. Many of us complain that we spend too much time on our phones; we may even find ourselves addicted to certain apps. I sometimes condemn technology, and smart phones in particular, for tapping into and profiting from human nature's fickle resolve, and I refrain from using wifi everyday as it's not necessary for the work I'm doing. However, I've recently developed a finer understanding of the boons of the smart phone. The migrants would be even more lost (literally and figuratively), more scared, and more alone without these pocket computers. Here are some instances that demonstrate a few ways in which smart phones usually help, sometimes hurt, and undeniably shape their day-to-day lives:

Because migrating requires traveling great expanses by foot, the number of refugees in Belgrade dwindled since November. A recent spread in the Economist suggested 7,000/day entered Greece last fall and through the winter 2-3,000/day (with even fewer since NATO deployed ships to ensure they don't reach Greece, but that's another story). While they all cross through Serbia, only a few stop in Belgrade; those who can afford it travel straight from the Macedonian/Bulgarian borders to the Croatian border. Or, if they're "non-SIA" (meaning not from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan), which usually means they're economic migrants, they might try to cut through Hungary illegally. At night we greet "SIA" refugees at the train station and either escort them to the refugee camp or wait with them for the train to Šid, the town on the Croatian border. During the day, however, I mostly interact with "non-SIA" economic migrants, and the most meaningful conversations I have with them happen around the surge protector provided by InfoPark (an NGO with a small hut in the park beside the bus/train depot). InfoPark serves tea, coffee, and instant noodles, but the most significant contribution is the row of outlets for migrants to use to charge their phones. This surge protector works as, I imagine, a water cooler does in the workplace. Nearly everyone has a phone, and those who don't once did until the phones were stolen by other migrants, by police, or by smugglers. Some are even on their third or fourth phone because they consider it a requisite appendage. We open InfoPark at 9am and by 9:02am six phones charge while their owners wait impatiently for the chance to reconnect with their friends and family back home and elsewhere in Europe. As the men wait, I begin basic small-talk which, when the phones' batteries are at 0%, become drawn-out conversations.

On Monday, a Pakistani man described violence he witnessed back home before leaving. He's a member of Ahmadiyya, a minority Muslim group persecuted in Pakistan. As we all do when recounting horror, he struggled to find the right words to explain what happened so he turned to multimedia. He opened up his YouTube app, searched for footage of the incident, and played a video in which Pakistani police beat and tried to set fire to members of his denomination. Because I had never heard of Ahmadiyya, he used his phone to google the religion and laced the basic information on Wikipedia with his personal experience. Since we didn't have a mutual language in which to communicate fully, technology played the middle man, extending and deepening our conversation.

YouTube made another appearance another evening as I waited with a Kurdish family for the train that would take them to Šid. Smugglers had stolen the passports and nearly all the money of this poor father, mother, and their four-year-old daughter who we found crying a few blocks from the train station. I didn't catch the whole story, but basically Muslim smugglers in Macedonia promised to take them from Greece to Croatia, but instead dropped them off in Macedonia. Because the family had Afghani passports, they could have passed freely through the Macedonian and Serbian borders spending very little on public transportation. Unfortunately, they weren't made aware of these options since there aren't as many Kurdish translators and they don't speak Arabic. Believing that their chances of seeking asylum in Germany evaporated with their passports, their spirits were completely crushed. Fortunately we took them to the police station, got them registered, and bought them tickets for the train to Croatia. Since we only have Arabic translators we called our friend in Croatia who speaks Kurdish and over Skype we navigated each of these steps. Isn't that fantastic? Everything was spoken in quick Serbo-Croatian and Kurdish so I didn't catch it all, but the whole time I stood astonished by this triangulated conversation made possible by technology. After successfully transmitting the message that all would be well, the family showed me a YouTube video of the town they hope to reach in Germany which has a large Kurdish population including some friends of theirs. The mother and father clearly watch this video regularly because they hummed along to the background music and excitedly tapped the screen during key moments. These Kurdish refugees had an unbearable day but this video helped to turn it around and remind them of what would make the long journey bearable.

For the past week I've known when the clock struck 3:30pm by a Moroccan migrant's phone alarm. This alarm notifies him of the fourth of five daily prayers, a practice he and all the Muslims I've met have given up without easy or any access to a mosque. The alarm itself is some sort of melodic, chanted prayer which no one has seemed interested in talking about so I haven't pressed them for its meaning. When asked why he wouldn't silence the alarm for good he told his friend that they need to remember "what's important and prayer's important." While religion may come up in a conversation, people rarely reveal anything about their faith. Obviously it's very personal and I don't intend to pry, but I'm very grateful to have been privy to this brief exchange about a matter of great import.

As I indicated above, smart phones are precious and, like all things precious, they inspire envy and greed in the eyes of those who don't have them or wish evilly to make easy money. By the time the migrants reach Belgrade, they've usually lost or been robbed of at least one phone, a loss that sometimes brings out the worst in people. Of the seven fights I've witnessed (from afar, Mom and Dad, don't worry), five were sparked by the accusation of a stolen phone. Naturally these incite regional tensions that lie just beneath the surface. Two weeks ago, what started as a fight between a Moroccan and a man from Polisario became a full-on West Side Story brawl between all the Moroccans and all of those from Polisario. (Alas my role as a Jet girl in this musical during high school didn't prepare me for the explosive effect of a fight like that.) Given the proportion of phone-related fights, I should have been less surprised when I learned of the spark that lit the fire ablaze. It seems that angst from the injustices they've faced simmers under the skin of a lot of these guys, but they generally do a good job keeping it in check. Smart phones, however, are 100% off limits, and if that rule isn't respected there are consequences.

In an effort to end on a cheerier note, I'll close with a story from last night. When twenty-six Afghani men got off the train in Belgrade, we greeted them with care packages full of food and water and explained their options moving forward. Instead of accepting the free aid, the first man I approached immediately asked me where he could get an SIM card for his phone. The Bulgarian police stole his phone and most of his money and while his friend lent him his phone he needed a Serbian SIM card. While I escorted him to the money exchange counter and then to the kiosk he explained that it was his daughters eleventh birthday and he desperately needed to call her. As soon as he activated the card and added credit, he called, he heard her voice, and all was well. I don't know if I'd ever seen a wave of relief and joy so profound.

I intended these anecdotes to explain the strange mix of medieval and modern that govern the migrants' lives. They walk for many hours on end and then "like" their friends' photos on Facebook. They have access to so little actually but so much virtually. More often than not, these devices supply immense support by keeping them oriented and informed and helping them to maintain support networks from afar. Sometimes they even provide that extra push to keep going. One man's phone background features an image that might appear on an inspirational poster with big text reading "go the distance" -- a semi-arid landscape, blue sky, and a paved road cutting straight through the center. When he caught me examining it, he said, "Life's a journey." While people have always migrated, they haven't always migrated with this porous link to the place and people they left and that final destination. In the midst of a sometime-excruciating journey, smart phones can provide that which migrants need most: hope.

In the next post I'll provide a couple of examples of how technology influences the work of volunteers, as well.