Virtual Reality documentary captures refugee life in Ireland

Eriazel Makanhiwa, a refugee student, and University of Galway Library staff member Eileen Kennedy hold an Insta360 camera which will record video for the virtual reality documentary.

By Nykole King

Virtual reality might be a tool to build empathy towards a refugee living in Direct Provision in Ireland. 

That is the goal for an immersive documentary event. The short movie features a day in the life of two University of Galway students living in a Direct Provision Centre.

“The whole thing with virtual reality is that it’s like an empathy machine because you step into someone’s life. You’re not just watching it from sitting back, you’re actually there and it’s all around you,” said Eileen Kennedy, the Library Digital Experience Developer at the University of Galway.

Kennedy is the organiser of the documentary project. She works in the library’s MakerSpace, a space where students can access and experiment with technology. She has been working with the two students over the winter to help them tell their stories of coming to Ireland as refugees.

Correcting misconceptions

The idea came to Kennedy when she noticed that there were negative comments online about people living in Direct Provision. She noticed that there were misconceptions about the financial support for refugees that fuelled the negative bias.

Eriazel Makanhiwa is one of the two students in this virtual reality project. He is originally from Zimbabwe. He’s now a student in the Access Programme at the University of Galway and living in Direct Provision. 

Makanhiwa said he has encountered people in Ireland who believe that the support given in Direct Provision is more than someone would receive if they were working and living independently.

“They think you have free everything,” said Makanhiwa. “If someone is paying bills and asks to stay in Direct Provision, I’m sure the following morning he is going to go back to his bills.”

“It’s not a place where anyone would wish to stay. Just for myself, I wouldn’t want to be there but I’m there because of the situation, and I’m grateful,” said Makanhiwa.

Accurate portrayal

Part of the purpose of the documentary is painting an accurate portrayal of the experience of living in Direct Provision. 

“It’s so easy to think of a group of people. To not be able to think of an individual in that situation. And when you see an individual in that situation, it just brings it home a bit more,” said Kennedy.

Makanhiwa is using an Insta360 virtual reality camera to record a day in his life starting from the Direct Provision Centre, then going to university and back home again.

Using virtual reality

At the event, viewers will be given a virtual reality headset. The 10-minute documentary allow viewers to be immersed in the imagery while hearing from one of the two students about their experiences in their own words.

“You’re supposed to be able to hear the story from where they are now and get a sense of what they’ve come through. And this is where they are now, and it’s better, but it could be so much better,” said Kennedy.

“There’s so much we could do to help their lives improve here.”

The University of Galway is screening this documentary event as part of the upcoming Nelson Mandela Anti-Racism Week. This project was funded by the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Project Fund.

Documentary screening

The documentary will be screening on 20 March at the Institute for Lifecourse and Society Building (room LCI G007). It will also be held on 21 March at the Hardiman Research Building (room G010).

The event is free to attend. Viewings can be booked ahead online in 15 minute time slots: 

After the event, the documentary movies will also be available for viewing on the library’s YouTube channel. VR headsets can be loaned from the MakerSpace at the University of Galway Library.

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