Virtual reality helps children visualise brighter future

Amid war in Ukraine, an UPSHIFT project is helping children to find hope

Julia Silina, Kate Bond
30 July 2022

Nine-year-old Lisa pulls the virtual reality (VR) glasses down over her eyes. After being forced to flee the war in Kyiv with her family, it seems little can phase her these days. But she is awe-struck to find herself aboard a train, speeding through a Mexican canyon.

“Today I tried VR for the first time,” she exclaims, later. “It was difficult to stand on my feet, I was afraid of falling, I was shaking a little. It was great.”

Today’s virtual expedition at Ternopil Vocational College in western Ukraine has given her a taste of the freedom she has lost over the past few months.

“I would like to move to another country, or go on a trampoline and I would do a somersault on it,” she says, excitedly.

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UNICEF

The VR sessions are run by ‘Upgrade’, an UPSHIFT youth project that holds meetings for displaced children in the city of Ternopil. The Upgrade team, who are students at Ternopil Vocational College, aim to create a fun, comfortable and interesting atmosphere for those who are seeking safety from the war in their city.

Like many, Lisa and her family fled shelling and hostilities. Although she has found peace in Ternopil, she misses her home and friends.

“There were a lot of air raid sirens at home, so we decided to go,” she recalls. “I am very sad because I had many friends in Kyiv, but now they have all moved away. And I don’t know where. And I really miss my playground by the house, there was always somebody there to play with, it was cool there.”

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Vitalii, an 18-year-old college student and Upgrade team member, hopes the VR sessions can help children like Lisa to forget the violence and trauma they have experienced.

“Many displaced people came to our city,” says Vitalii. “For example, more than 200 displaced people stay in our college. And for children, we made a lesson on 3D printing, showed the work of a 3D printer and VR technologies. We are doing this to divert their attention from the war a little and show what the world will be like in the future in twenty to thirty years.”

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Thanks to the funding and mentorship they received before the war from the UPSHIFT programme, a youth innovation project run by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Upgrade team have opened a state-of-the-art technology office at their college. The war has not only changed Vitalii’s personal goals, but also Upgrade’s vision for their project.

“Before the war, the goal of our project was to provide new knowledge, and now we also try to entertain children, occupy them with something useful, so that they relax and at the same time learn something new,” says Vitalii, as he waits for the 3D printer to print an owl-shaped toy. “We all really hope that everything will be fine. And these children will be able to return home. In the meantime, we want them to feel at home in our city.”