A Trip to the HeART of the Unseen Iran via the VR Empathy Machine

 

Iran

I came to Japan in 2015 to do my PhD, and I realized in the first few days of living here that there are certain stereotypes about the Middle East, especially about Iran. This is why I actively give talks about the real Iran and the Iranian people behind the news, and blog about the Iranian identity at beyondyourstereotypes.wordpress.com (“I Am More Than A Stereotype”).

In my classes, I always allocate one whole session to introduce my country, and this helps me establish my identity and help my students see and perceive me as I perceive myself.

Here is my ELT chalkboard on Iran on the first day of my English Conversation (英語会話) class at Konan Women’s University.

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One of my MAVR teammates, Chris Hastings, who knows about my presentations on Iran, kindly contacted me. Here is a part of his email:

I want to help you add a VR component to your talks/workshops about Iran. I think your efforts to normalize ideas about Iran and squash ridiculous stereotypes are really admirably, and something I want to help with. So, I’m suggesting possibly adding a VR segment to one of your workshops that uses Google Streetview, Google Expeditions, or maybe even a VR movie about Iran. I think this would be really powerful in combination with your words. I recently heard a quote about VR being called an ‘empathy machine’ and it made me think about you and your recent efforts regarding “I Am More Than A Stereotype”.

This semester, I have five classes: Three classes at Konan Women’s University  (English at KonanWU) and two classes at Kobe Women’s University (English at KobeWU). Travel is the theme of all the textbooks that I teach. So, I took this opportunity and planned a virtual trip to the unseen Iran through little but powerful empathy machine. In our recent email exchange, Chris shared a TED Talk with me, titled “How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine”. It’s probably where the phrase ‘ultimate empathy machine’ was coined. Chris Milk, the speaker is adding ‘ultimate’ to what the film critic Roger Ebert originally said about movies being like ‘machines that generate empathy’.

I ordered seven Google Cardboards on Amazon and I contacted Chris to pick his brain about the VR integration into my lesson plan. According to him, the best app he has worked with so far is Google Streetview because it is simple and easy to use. He said, the only problem was maybe not a lot of content for Iran. He kindly shared a website which has a VR section on Iran: https://persiaport.com/en/hashtag/virtualreality. It has a lot of content and can be accessed on mobile devices and is compatible with Google Cardboard.

Then, he further explained that if you have your own 360 photos, you could use a service like https://roundme.com/ to upload them to and create a simple tour. There is a free version with somewhat limited functionality which will allow you to do this. It’s also really simple to use. If you want to get serious about making your own tours, then I recommend – https://ggnome.com/pano2vr. If there 360 images on Google Streetview you want to edit / upload to your own platform / make part of a tour, you can use this free software Streetviewgrabber – http://www.purebasic.fr/english/viewtopic.php?f=27&t=50248 (using Google’s photos for educational purposes is OK).

I decided to start with PersiaPort and 360cities  3D images of Iran . I created QR codes for each photo. As homework, I asked my students to find a tourist destination in Iran and bring a photo to the class (digital or in print).

 

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Many students found Nasir ol Molk Mosque as a tourist attraction in Iran. So, I decided to take them there! I also chose Masouleh, a village on the rooftops located in the north of Iran. I divided the students into groups and asked them to describe what they could see in English. We were at the heART of Nasir ol Molk Mosque and Masouleh village, and the classroom was filled with “wow moments”. Some of the students started walking around to be able to see the entire captured scene.

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Here are the QR codes and group number signs in Persian style.

Finally, I got the students to write a paragraph about their VR experience and their trip to Iran. In total, 65 students took a virtual trip to Iran. Here are some of their comments:

I’m planning to make the VR task more complicated for the future virtual trips to the real Iran. I am also going to add Tehrangeles to the activity to take the students to Little Persia in the US. In this way, I can also go there and overcome the travel ban with the help of VR 🙂

Here are my slides on “A Virtual Trip to the Unseen Iran” as part of the MAVR SIG Forum at JALT2017:

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Denied yet Present at EUROCALL 2017: A Memoir

Denied yet Present at EUROCALL 2017

Photo created by Canva

update: I received 74,192 yen from Takemura Lab, Osaka University, and 40,000 yen from the EUROCALL members. In total, I paid around 150,000 yen (translation fees included) and I was reimbursed the sum of 114,192 yen. I’d like to thank my supervisor, Prof. Takemura and the EUROCALL community for their support.

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Together with Mehrasa, we attended EUROCALL 2015 in Padova, Italy. This is how I became a EUROCALL member and got connected to the community.

We submitted two abstracts to EUROCALL 2017 to present the results of our joint PhD project, titled Osaka University Global English Online, and shared it publicly on Facebook.

Facebook 1

Both of our submissions got accepted and the UK visa journey then started.

First round of visa application

Mehrasa and I applied for the visa on May 25th, 2017, and we both got rejected. We announced the rejection publicly on Facebook.

Facebook 2

It is worth mentioning that we submitted a confirmation of invitation letter from the conference chair, Kate Borthwick, confirming that we have been invited to present our Research and Development papers at the EUROCALL 2017 conference. Our supervisor, Prof. Haruo Takemura, also wrote a letter and guaranteed that all the travel expenses to attend the conference are covered by Osaka University.

Second round of visa application

We applied again on July 11th, 2017, and provided stronger documents. We added the names of some of our British friends in the application form, and one of them wrote a recommendation letter for us. We wrote exactly the same reason for our travel (we did not paraphrase it):

“This conference presentation is part of the requirements for the completion of my PhD course at Osaka University. I will publish two papers in the conference proceedings, one with my name as the first author, then I will be able to defend my PhD.”

Our documents were the same to a large extent except for my marriage certificate and our bank transactions. I had worked part time at a university as an English instructor and I had received about 180,000 yen (1200 GBP) monthly from April 2017. Our scholarship (148,000 yen, 1000 GBP) is fixed, and I wrote in the application form that I had worked part-time and provided a copy of my contract in English.

Mehrasa luckily got the visa, and I got rejected again because:

“While I acknowledge that you have been invited to present a paper at the EUROCALL 2017 conference the evidence you have provided does not explain why it is needed for you to complete your PhD at Osaka University.” 

I announced the second rejection on Facebook.

Facebook 3

Third round of visa application

I applied for the third time on August 2nd, 2017. I submitted an extra letter I received from one of the coordinators of the EUROCALL Special Interest Groups (SIG), Mirjam Hauck, in support of my application for a visa to enter the UK so that I can be elected into my new role, secretary of the EUROCALL Graduate Student SIG, during the meeting on August 24th in Southampton.

I got rejected for the third time, and wrote on my Facebook page that I will be at the EUROCALL 2017 conference in spirit.

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Here you can find my “Refusal of Entry Clearance” letters.

After my first visa rejection, I read a visa story about an Iranian artist, Ehsan Abdollahi (#visaforAbdollahi), who was denied entry to the UK to attend Edinburgh book festival for illogical reasons, very similar to the ones I received regarding my bank statements, but decision has finally been overturned by the UK embassy in Tehran and fortunately he could attend and hold his workshops at the festival. Here, I would like to share his illustration in reaction to his visa refusal with which I strongly identify. It shows an animated Abdollahi in a bottle in reference to his book, A Bottle of Happiness, along with the words painted in colors: “I rubbed out the words ‘No Entry’ and wrote with all my colours: Happiness, Flying, Kindness, Hope, Love.”

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Photo source: https://goo.gl/EaLVUw

Feeling disappointed but hopeful, I decided to attend the conference online!


Twitter

I started checking the conference hashtag, #EUROCALL2017, every second, and I could connect to the conference by tweeting, retweeing, and communicating with the twitterers. Periscopes also really helped me keep connecting.

Here is the link to my EUROCALL 2017 Storify, and you can see all the moments of connection, hope, and love: https://storify.com/ParisaMehran/eurocall2017

I also created a list of tech tools based on the EUROCALL abstract book and asked the twitterers to help me complete the list.

Tech Tools from EUROCALL 2017


Virtually Connecting

Following the tweets, I noticed that I could connect virtually through Virtually Connecting (VC). I singed up for the two virtual conversations: the first one at 2 a.m. and the second one at 7 p.m. in Japan. VC connected me to the two of the keynote speakers, Steven Thorne and Shannon Sauro, and I got to know other CALL scholars. One of the virtual buddies I met online was Simon Ensor. You can read his blog post, This Stream Is Not Online at Present, where he asks:

“How many people do not have access to learning, to conferences as a result of visa restrictions, financial barriers, family constraints, statutory constraints etc, etc?   This was exemplified by Parisa Mehran who was accepted to present this year, but was unable to attend due to visa rejections.”

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Here are the screenshots I took during the virtual sessions, and I am happy to announce that I was just invited to join the VC team to set up virtual sessions as a virtual buddy:

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Skype

I was able to attend my sessions via Skype with the help of the EUROCALL organizers and my friends who set up everything before my presentations. Here I share some of the schreenshots. You can see excitement in my face!

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Here are some screenshots of the sessions Mehrasa helped me attend after our presentations:

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The Mobile Guide for EUROCALL 2017

I installed the app of the conference, virtually “checked in”, and stayed in touch with the attendees there as well.

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Shannon Sauro’s Keynote Speech 

I know Shannon from EUROCALL 2015, and since then I stayed in touch with her through Facebook and Twitter. She contacted me on Twitter and said that she wanted to mention my story in her keynote and the challenges I had faced in trying to come to the conference. I asked Mehrasa to get online on Skype to be able to listen to Shannon. Then, I saw Shannon’s tweet sharing the livestream link for her keynote “Looking to Fandom in a Time of Change”.

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Shannon started with talking about the Trump travel ban and recounting the story of a researcher, Shahlah Adi, who could not attend the CALICO 2017 conference because of the ban, and then my story. I was in tears and touched by her powerful talk. I filmed my screen and you can watch the video here.

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Photo taken by Mehrasa

Here are the screenshots of the tweets after Shannon shared my story:

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Louise Ohashi (Associate Professor, Meiji University, Japan) is a close friend and I know her through JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching). After Shannon’s keynote, she made an appeal (click here to watch the video Mehrasa took while Louise was talking) to the EUROCALL community to support me, and she collected about 350 (GBP) to cover my visa application fees.

In total, I paid around 150,000 yen (1000 GBP). Each round cost 21,000 yen (150 GBP) and for the third round I paid 30,000 yen (215 GBP) extra to use priority service. The cost of translating my documents was also about 40,000 yen (280 GBP).

After Shannon’s talk and when Mehrasa shared some photos, I received these massages on Facebook from CALL scholars:

Steve McCarty (Professor, Kansai University, Osaka Jogakuin, and the Japanese government (JICA), Japan):

“Parisa, that’s the global community of scholars in action, sharing common academic standards and ethics. Maybe at a suitable time I could contribute a paragraph to your blog or wherever on the ironies of demonizing Iran.”

Kalyan Chattopadhyay (Associate Professor, Bankim Sardar College, Calcutta University, India):

“Your story has become epiphanic of pain and anguish of thousands of academics who were treated whimsically. So you have a fandom and I’m proud to be your fan.”

Ali Bostanci (Lecturer, Nevsehir Haci Bektas Veli University, Turkey):

“Dear Parisa, I have attended the EuroCALL conference in Southampton (only for a short time on Friday afternoon) and participated in Shannon Sauro’s Plenary Speech in which she talked about the details of how your visa application has been rejected 3 times. Until recently you were in my friend list at least this is how I remember it. Anyways, I just wanted to let you know that many people were disappointed to learn about what happened to you in this process. I really hope that you this frustration will somehow turn into an opportunity for you.  I really do! One thing for sure is that you are very popular now among CALL researchers 🙂 I wish you best of luck in everything.” (Ali sent me this message privately and I asked for permission to publish it here).


Despite being denied, this was the story of my presence at EUROCALL 2017. Words fail me to thank all those who cared about my story, supported me along the way, and helped me cross the borders and be there.

During this journey, I learned and practiced how to take action by sharing stories as stories have the power to change the world. I am now impatiently waiting to receive my conference pack and a lovely T-shirt, and I am planning to wear it at EUROCALL 2018 online or hopefully on site 🙂

T-shirt

Photo taken by Mehrasa at the Elizabeth House Hotel, Southampton, UK

Keep calm, stay positive, take action, and share your story!