I am the first in my family to be born outside Iran; my parents were forced into exile by the 1979 Iranian Revolution. So in 2015, while watching the horrific events in Syria unfold, I felt a pang of recognition and was inspired to do something.
How could I help humanize the experience of displacement, particularly for young people in the West? Young people who have mostly been fortunate to not have experienced the trauma of war and loss of homeland and identity, and yet who are part of the very same communities in which many refugees are settling.
In a climate of increasing xenophobia and misperceptions about Middle Easterners, I wondered what would happen to the millions of refugees in Europe once the crisis subsided. What conscious and unconscious choices would be made over the coming decades that would lead to more inclusive or segregated societies?
In order to reach as many young people as possible with the goal of fostering empathy toward refugees, I decided to tell a story about a young Syrian fleeing war using a popular video game. Minecraft is the most popular online game in the world (140 million downloads) and a recognized storytelling language. By telling the story of a Syrian refugee in an interactive online game format, players would be able to get closer to the experience of a refugee.
Having led the international talent division of Maker Studios, a company that represented some of the world’s most popular YouTubers before being acquired by Disney, I know firsthand the power of digital gaming and storytelling to engage and influence young people at scale.
My GATHER Fellowship project uses the power of interactive storytelling in a popular visual language to build empathy for the experience of a refugee. It is the starting point of a unique curriculum that uses experiential and co-creative learning models to engage youth with the important question of what makes up inclusive, pluralistic communities, and in a way that makes it personally relevant.
“In a political environment of increasing prejudice towards foreigners, it is crucial for young people to learn about the experiences that create refugees, to see the human faces and stories behind the label of ‘refugee,’ and also to learn about how all societies benefit from recognizing the needs of both the newcomers and host communities.”