Clouds over Sidra takes Ryerson to Zaatari refugee camp

People viewing Clouds over Sidra using VR headsets in the Sears Atrium. (Samraweet Yohannes)

People viewing Clouds over Sidra using VR headsets in the Sears Atrium. (Samraweet Yohannes)


On Nov. 3, members of the Ryerson community were transported to Northern Jordan all while sitting on campus.

In an eight-minute virtual reality documentary entitled Clouds over Sidra, people are led through a refugee camp by a 12-year-old girl named Sidra. Sidra and her family fled their home in Daraa, Syria over a year and a half ago and have been living in the camp, known as Zaatari, ever since.

Ryerson’s World University Services Canada (WUSC) organized the event entitled (Virtual) Reality of a Refugee Experience.

This screening is part of the Sidra Project, a collaboration between Toronto’s Artscape and the United Nations.

Emma Jankowski, staff advisor to the WUSC committee and international student advisor at international student support, says the event was meant to bring awareness about refugee issues to campus.

“We wanted to try something that was a bit different. We were so fortunate to be able to work with the Sidra Project and bring them to campus because what they’re doing is incredible.”

The Zaatari refugee camp, located just south of the Syrian-Jordanian border, is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, spanning 5.3 km2. It currently houses close to 80,000 people, according to the UNHCR. Over 461,700 refugees have frequented the camp since its creation in July 2012.


Sidra shares the realities of life in the camp throughout the film. Despite the circumstances, her narration is coloured with moments of humour.

“I think the part, for me, that was most impactful was towards the end when children were running and you really felt like they were right here, hugging [you]. It was a really powerful experience,” Jankowski says.

About 56 per cent of the camp’s current population is under the age of 18.

For many attendees, it was their first time experiencing virtual reality. Safwa Mahmood, a first-year computer science student, says the film reignited her desire to help.

“They just want a normal family, a normal life like us, but they don’t have that opportunity. So I want to help [them] maybe to get that normal life.”

Clouds over Sidra was directed by Gabo Arora, the UN’s first creative director. The film was first shown at the World Economic Forum. It was there that Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, met Arora.

“Once he saw the film [he] said ‘we have to do something’ and this is where this idea started,’” said Ruba Al-Nazer, project manager of the Sidra Project.

The project’s goal, she says, is to re-engage Canadians in the resettlement effort for all refugees that have come to Canada and turn their compassion into action.

Al-Nazer, a Palestinian-Jordanian, has a personal connection to the region. She has seen the film many times, but, she says, people’s reactions after the screenings are enough to get her emotional.

“In one of our screenings, one person said something that will stick [with] me until the end of time, probably. She said ‘I felt I was seen and now that I have been seen, what am I going to do about it?’ She felt that responsibility.”

With this film, Al-Nazer says the UN is introducing a new method for creating change, to take the place of press releases, press conferences and celebrity spokespeople. Virtual reality provides people with an immersive look into the issue and humanizes those involved.

“We can look at [Sidra] and say ‘she’s just like us, if only she had a better chance.’”

Next, the Sidra Project will stage a screening of the film at the Pearson International Airport.

The group will also host private screenings for some of the employees who worked at the terminal that received the group of refugees that arrived last year.

“This is our way of saying thank you for all the work [they’ve] done and hopefully they will feel rewarded once they know because we know that must have been a very emotional feat for them,” Al-Nazer says.

She says this series of screenings, which ends Dec. 20, is just the first phase of the project.

“We hope we can extend it in some way or form, maybe [Clouds over Sidra] will go into other cities and other countries. There’s certainly a lot of interest.”

The foreseeable hurdle now is financial constraints.

At the end of the film, viewers are transported back to the sprawling grounds of the camp. Viewers tilt their heads up and see a cluster of dusty pink clouds.

“The clouds moving over here also came from Syria. Someday the clouds and me are going to turn around and go back home,” Sidra says.

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