To find a story that could be told through virtual reality for my Syracuse Emerging Media Platforms course, I’ve gone back to the summer of 2017 when Nury Chavarria, a mother of four from Norwalk, Connecticut, was faced with deportation because of her status as an undocumented immigrant.
On the eve of her deportation to Guatemala, Chavarria took sanctuary at Iglesia De Dios Pentecostal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. While supporters on the outside worked for a stay to her deportation, religious leaders inside provided her a safe place to avoid ICE agents.
Her four children are U.S. citizens, including two who are in college. Chavarria’s case drew the attention of CNN and other national news outlets, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy went to the church to meet with her to hear her plea for assistance.
Hers is one of several compelling cases of undocumented immigrants who are facing deportation across the U.S. The New Haven church is part of the sanctuary movement, a group of 800 faith communities in the U.S. who are safeguarding immigrants facing deportation.
I couldn’t find a story that described in detail where Chavarria was staying in the church, but I think virtual reality would have been a great way for us to understand what her place of sanctuary looked like.
I imagine they weren’t palatial surroundings. Let’s suppose she was staying in a small room in the church with makeshift bedding and a couple of drawers in which to keep her clothes. Imagine that she had few belongings with her except for a photo of her four children. I can even imagine the 43-year-old housekeeper pacing in that small room while politicians and activists were working outside to keep her from being sent back to Guatemala after 24 years.
My hypothesis would be that people might be more empathetic and supportive of her cause if they could virtually see where she was staying. I would create a VR video for a news outlet showing her sanctuary and post it on the news website and then measure reader engagement on the site and through social media.
My analytics would include how many times it was watched, shared on Facebook and retweeted and how many comments it was getting. I could then call Connecticut’s senators, representatives and the governor’s office to see if calls, letters and emails of support for her had increased after my VR video aired. I could check with the church to see if messages of support had increased. None of these would be precise measurements as to whether the VR video worked, but they could be powerful anecdotal evidence.
In real life, Chavarria was granted an emergency stay of her deportation and was able to leave the church after three days. Here she is, fourth from the left, in a photo by Catherine Avalone of Hearst Connecticut Media, as she and her supporters held a victory march.
She didn’t need her story told with VR technology, but this is an idea that might work for journalists covering such a story in the future.