The story behind World Refugee Day Live

World Refugee Day Live was the result of tireless effort by several different organizations and individuals around the globe, and its origins reach back several years. Since 2005, members of California-based NGO i-Activism have been travelling to Sudanese refugee camps and creating video journals of their experiences and those of the refugees that have fled the mass killings in Darfur. In addition to broadcasts out of the camps, concerned individuals around the globe were able to send messages of support and solidarity to the camps, showing the refugees that they were not forgotten. This "near-live" content was the first of its kind, and was effective at publicizing the tragic conditions of the refugees with which they created long-term relationships. To date, i-Act has visited refugee camps on seven different occasions, and has become an important entity in the global refugee arena.


One of the active members of i-Activism is Yuen-Lin Tan, who works as a software engineer for VSee Lab and has participated in two i-Activism trips (1, 2). In early 2009, UNHCR offical Greg Millar approached i-Act co-founder Gabriel Stauring about exploring the possibility of live video interaction between UNHCR headquarters in Washington DC and a refugee camp in Chad. Stauring turned to Tan, and inn April, VSee software and i-Activism members in Chad allowed UNHCR officials to successfully interact in real-time with schoolchildren attending a primary school in Djabal refugee camp (see technical details). After the success of that test, the UNHCR was willing to utilize the power of live VSee video on a larger scale. The first opportunity for doing so was a June 18th formal dinner in Washington DC, kicking off the global events and activities that followed on June 20th for World Refugee Day.


In early June, as preparations were being made for the June 18th event, VSee CEO and founder Milton Chen was in Washington DC and met with Millar about how the UNHCR could continue to harness the power of VSee live video. The two came up with the concept for creating an extended live webcast in observance of World Refugee Day. After the meeting, Chen flew back to Mountain View to meet with the VSee team to begin preparations for the event, while Millar met with other UNHCR officials in Washington DC and Geneva to garner support and funding for the event.


By June 18th, the day of the World Refugee Day kickoff event, planning and UN support for World Refugee Day Live had been progressing at a frenetic pace for two weeks. Teams from i-Act were en-route to Chad, UNHCR staff in Colombia, Syria, and Pakistan had been given short tutorials on using VSee, custom VSee software was written by VSee programmers, and the WRD Live web site was nearing completion (read more about the technology of WRD Live). The UNHCR provided funding and resources to make WRD Live a reality, and the June 18th event only futher galvanized their support. With a crowd of 400 in attendance, including actress and UNHCR Goowdwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, representatives from the US State Department, and UN High Commisioner for Refugees António Guterres, a high point of the event was the live VSee link to Chad. Guests were connected with refugees as well as i-Activism volunteers and UNHCR staff-members in Djabal camp, creating an experience that veteran NBC correspondent Ann Curry described as, "one of the best live shots I've seen."


With two days left until the World Refugee Day Live webcast, the VSee, i-Activism, and UNHCR teams continued to work around the clock, and the globe, to ensure that the event would be a success, and the plight of refugees brought to as large an audience and in the most powerful and direct way as possible.