Since moving to the United States sixteen years ago, one of the focal points of the holiday season for my family has been calling all of our relatives in Bulgaria. Over time, though, this has evolved from a simple two minute phone call to say as quickly as possible our wishes, into elaborate hour long video and phone chats. At one point we had my grandparents on the phone in one town while we were video chatting with our cousins in another city on Skype. Despite the distance, my whole family was chatting together as if we were all sitting in the same room. Such innovations in communication have allowed families that are scattered across continents like mine to stay in touch and keep a strong connection to their homelands.
The video conferencing technology that I now use at home on a regular basis had its origins at a much earlier time. While simple videophone communication could be established as early as the invention of the television and the technology was developed throughout the 20th century, it did not become readily available to the public at a reasonable cost until the 1990s. Even then, it was not until the 2000s that it was popularized through services like Skype, a company founded in 2003. Such video technology has allowed increased interaction between people who are physically apart, especially benefiting diaspora communities. Video conferencing is not only a way of keeping up with family back home, but it can also be a way to promote cultural exchange and engage diasporas.
For example, Israel Connect, a program dedicated to connecting the Jewish youth in the diaspora, facilitated a video conference between children at a school in Samaria, Israel and children who are part of a congregation in Los Angeles. Through video conferencing, sixth graders living thousands of miles apart held a joint Seder. Such technology allows students to share their experiences in countries around the world, and in this way helps to build a globally aware and knowledgeable youth.
A second example comes from Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora, which has begun to engage the diaspora by organizing “Armenia-Diaspora”theme-based video conferences. One of the things that the Ministry is trying to promote is business engagement, which video conferencing can also help facilitate as members of the diaspora working in the business world can connect through video to business leaders in Armenia and act as mentors as well as facilitate cross-border business.
The business leaders heading up some of these technology companies that help to facilitate cultural exchange and business over video chat also sometimes take an initiative to help diaspora communities directly. In the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, Skype’s voice and video calls to Haiti were completely free, and the company also sent vouchers to all of its users in Haiti for $2 of Skype credit that Haitians could use to call the US and other countries. With many landlines down and minimal cell phone coverage in Haiti after the earthquake, these other forms of communication were important to connect families in the diaspora with those at home.
The Caribbean Telecommunications Union organized an Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Roadshow, which was focused on harnessing the power of innovation. As part of this Roadshow, they provided residents of the very rural community of Petite Soufriere, Dominica with the ability to communicate with family and friends in the diaspora using video conferencing.This is an example of how video conferencing technology is becoming available even in extremely rural areas, and these new connections between diasporas and their home communities will further promote the exchange of ideas and development on both sides.
Do you use video conferencing technology to maintain ties with your homeland? For what purposes do you use it—family, business, cultural? For those that have been part of the diaspora for a long time, how has this new technology changed your interaction with your homeland? We are eager to hear about your experiences.