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Photos provided by The Sidra Project.

It's hard to imagine a refugee camp in the desert: tents for miles, enclosed in an encampment that is just short of destitute and the surrounding land barren. Despite the low resolution of the virtual reality goggles I’m wearing, the poverty and hardship of the people displaced by war in Syria is hard to miss. The voice of a young girl, Sidra, is clear as I move through the camp. I am fully immersed in her life as she tries to find silver linings to the camp and shares special moments of her fading youth with me, but they are few and far between. She hopes to go home soon.

The media constantly forgets the growing plight of the Syrian people, afflicted by internal conflict that has raged for over five years. Why is it only when graphic images surface—of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi escaping the hell of war, or dazed Omar Daqneesh covered in blood and the dust of his recently pulverized neighborhood—that the suffering of over 10 million people is newsworthy? This is where Sidra’s story can make a difference.

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Clouds Over Sidra is a short but powerful Virtual Reality (VR) narrative through the eyes of Sidra, a 12-year-old Syrian girl living her day-to-day life in the Zaatari refugee camp, which hosts 12 per cent of the 655,990 registered refugees in Jordan. The film is a part of The Sidra Project, a new and unique collaboration between the United Nations (UN) and Toronto's very own Artscape, a not-for-profit that uses the power of culture to change, transform and grow communities. The film is being used to develop sustained interest and support for refugees in a bid to ensure their successful resettlement in Canada, which currently hosts one per cent of the known Syrian refugee population.

Gabo Arora, the UN's first ever creative director and founder of United Nations Virtual Reality Lab, says that a refugee's struggles do not end with resettlement and they require "ongoing supportive relationships" in order to ensure continued success. The VR experience, according to Arora, "hacks your senses" and delivers a level of engagement and depth to the viewer that doesn't exist in traditional media. As a result, an overwhelming sense of empathy overcomes you as you're taken through the Zaatari camp. This isn't the first time that the UN has used VR to provide people with a new perspective, as the release of the film coincides with the launch of the UNVR app, which contains four such interactive films.

Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, and his team have built a community engagement program that will leverage the film through public and private screenings over the next three and a half months in places like Union Station and Toronto International Pearson Airport as an “experiment to turn empathy and an incredibly immersive experience into action.” The action, in this context, is to visit the website and pledge your support, which ranges from engaging others in meaningful dialogue to sponsoring refugees. Organized viewings will also be provided with pledge cards to fill out with a partner, with the aim of creating a stronger commitment on following through since partners can discuss their progress, challenges and achievements. This, according to Nadeem Al Kassem, who is the director of The Sidra Project, allows for "an interactive project that goes beyond the [VR] experience.”

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Sidra's story is not unique and the Zaatari camp is not the only one of its kind.  The camp is one of many sprawling refugee communities within the Middle East, which has an estimated 4,799,677 UNHCR registered refugees. There are almost 32,000 girls aged 11 years old to 17 years old spread across these camps, with a total of 317,000 registered within the region. There are countless more Sidras that, due to the harrowing nature of war, we cannot account for.

War is indiscriminate. Bombs and artillery fire do not differentiate the rich and the poor, the young and the elderly, or the diverse demographic that once made up the population of Syria.  Like many of us, Sidra says of herself in the film that she enjoys studying, playing sports and the smell of freshly baked bread from the bakery she passes on her way to a makeshift school every day. The 6.6 million people internally displaced in Syria and the nearly 4.8 million who have fled to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq are evidence of an international refugee crisis.

Where is Sidra now?  As of today, she's still in the Zaatari refugee camp. The film, shot over two days in December of 2014, took place a year into Sidra's arrival at the camp. However, for Sidra it marks three years and counting without a home.

To see the list of upcoming screenings for Clouds Over Sidra, click here

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