By Matt Petronzio
Smartphones have become lifelines for refugees around the world. Now, a powerful new app will show you how crucial the technology is by taking over your phone’s operating system and transforming it into the phone of a 16-year-old refugee girl.
“Finding Home,” which was launched on Tuesday by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and advertising firm Grey Malaysia, puts you in the shoes of Rohingya teenager Kathijah as she flees persecution in Myanmar and tries to make a new life in Malaysia.
Kathijah, or “Kat” to friends and family, is fictional. But what you see in the app are very real struggles for Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority that has faced discrimination and persecution in Myanmar for years. The app’s goal is to spread awareness, create empathy, and galvanize action around the global refugee crisis overall.
“The refugee story is often a deeply personal one and difficult for people to understand,” Richard Towle, UNHCR representative in Malaysia, said in a statement.
“We hope that this application will allow a viewer to walk a mile in a refugee’s shoes in order to understand what they go through every day in order to find safety,” he said.
The “immersive mobile experience” simulates Kat’s phone, letting you swipe through photos, view videos, and receive texts and calls.
Early on in the simulation, someone named Rahim texts her via WhatsApp that their village is not safe. “We can’t stay,” he writes. You can then choose Kat’s reply: “Where can we go?” or “We have to run, now.” Regardless of your choice, her safety is in jeopardy, and she’s forced to leave Myanmar and find her way to Malaysia.
Kat’s journey jumps across days, weeks, and months. Her — and your — experiences range from extremely jarring to slightly more calm, whether it’s a harrowing video call from Kat’s brother as he runs from a raid through a jungle and the call cuts off abruptly, or a text conversation with another refugee friend about taking classes in English and Malay.
“By using the familiar functions your smartphone has as a storytelling device, the experience becomes uniquely personal and more impactful as a result,” said Graham Drew, executive creative director at Grey Malaysia. “[It’s] making a very important story accessible to a whole new audience.”
While much of “Finding Home” is disturbing, staying true to so many refugee experiences, there are moments of hope and humanity. Kat connects with several people along the way who befriend her, and help her get in touch with the UNHCR office.
The app naturally features some of the work UNHCR does in Malaysia. Throughout the app, you’ll find links to the UNHCR website to donate, volunteer, and learn more about the refugee crisis.
More than 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are currently registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, the majority of whom are from Myanmar. Of those, 58,000 refugees are Rohingya. Nearly 36,000 of refugees in Malaysia are children under 18, with stories similar to Kat’s.
This isn’t UNHCR’s first time launching an app to depict the refugee experience for the wider public. In 2012, the agency launched “My Life as a Refugee,” which put users in positions that forced them to make life and death decisions.
“Finding Home” expands on that conversation. It’s available now on Android, with an iOS version coming soon.