Video Calling Transforms Immigrants’ Connection to Family Back Home

December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Dervedia Thomas and Cristabelle Tumola

“He looks okay,” Rosa, 77, said in Spanish before bursting into tears.

Video conferencing has allowed her to see her son Luis, 40, who has been living in the United States for the past eight years.

Through a big-screen TV, Rosa and her family, Luis’ wife, three kids and his new 8-month old grand son, saw him as he stood alone in an enclosed room at the office of Austro Financial Services in Jackson Heights.

The family made the half-hour trip from the rural town of Guapan, Ecuador, to Austro, where an Ecuadorian bank with branches in the United States, Italy and Spain offers video conferencing services.

Luis was happy to see his family. They had only spoke by telephone before. If he finds steady work, he will go back to the conferencing center at least once a month.

Like many immigrants, Luis is working in the United States to provide for his family back home. He cannot return to Ecuador for vacation, weddings or special holidays because he is undocumented and cannot easily come back to the United States if he leaves. Even for those who are documented, special days like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Christmas are spent in Internet cafes, video teleconferencing centers or on their phones connecting with loved ones.

One out of four U.S. immigrants who own smart phones make use of PC or mobile video calling according to a study by Rebtel, a leading mobile company based in Sweden.  The company’s research has also found that smart phones are the primary source of Internet access in many immigrants’ home countries as fixed broadband Internet is not as readily accessible.

“Many immigrants, in particular international students, have adopted smartphones and video calling a lot quicker than many other groups,” Patric Blixt, chief marketing officer at Rebtel said. “The reason is, they have a generally greater need to communicate with their family back home in comparison to an average Westerner on a day-to-day basis.”

But not all immigrants own smart phones, or have Internet access at home. Less than half of Latino immigrants access the Internet using those mediums, a Pew Research Center study found. This is largely due to education levels and affordability.

In the largely immigrant community of Jackson Heights, Austro Financial Services has been receiving a steady flow of customers, about 20 to 30 people per week. Cell phone retailers say they have also noticed more and more interest in smart phones. Internet cafes that offer webcams are also popular, but café operators say the business has lost some of its appeal with customers in the last three years, largely due to lower prices of laptops and smartphones.

Many immigrants who come for videoconferencing services, have not seen their families in over five years, said Marcela Ordonez, assistant manager of Austro Financial Services. When they do, the reunion can become very emotional and staff at the facility sometimes have to intervene.

“I had to cut the video conference and say, ‘let’s go outside, ’” said Ordonez. She recalled a customer who saw his family for the first time in eight years and could not stop crying.

“My Ma looks old, but I missed it,” she remembered the customer saying while in tears.

The service costs $1.00 per minute for the person making the call in the United States and the relatives in Ecuador do not have to pay to receive the call.  Surprise gifts like a cake or flowers can also be paid for in advance at the U.S. center to be given to the relatives in Ecuador during the call.

This video conferencing center only caters to Ecuadorians because the banking center is located in that country. But Ordonez who also speaks to her mother every day in Ecuador via Skype, has had to turn people away from other countries like Mexico and Peru when they come in asking for the service.

Skype, a video conferencing software that can be accessed on smartphones and computers is also a favorite among immigrants. Forty-seven percent of persons surveyed in the Rebtel study, said that they use this program to connect with family and friends. Facetime and Yahoo messenger came in second and third respectively with 14 percent combined.

The popularity of Skype calls among immigrants may stem from fact that these calls are free according to Jennifer Myers a representative from Skype.

“Not only are Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls as well as instant messages free, but SkypeOut rates to landlines and mobiles are as low as 2.4 cents per minute,” Myers said.

Immigrants tend to be very “frugal,” according to the Rebtel executive.  Almost 80 percent of immigrants surveyed in his company’s study said they are unwilling to pay a monthly fee for these services.

For some immigrants, using smart phones is even cheaper than making phone calls.

Francesco Alvarez, 21, said four-years ago he used to spend over $40 per week on cards to call his parents in Guatemala. Now he says he pays just $65 a month on his cell phone plan and does not have to pay any additional fees for video conferencing.

“That’s the way they get closer to their families,” said Xavier Sarasti, retail store manager of T-Mobile, Jackson Heights, who says immigrants specifically ask for smart phones for themselves and for their relatives back home when they come into his store.

While working in his uncle’s cell phone and computer repair company, Alvarez also noticed that immigrants are requesting more and more smart phones as well as assistance downloading Skype and other video-chat software to their phones and computers.

This form of communication is also very personal for him. It is his way of connecting with his 7-year old brother who was born two-years after he left Guatemala.

“He shows me the things that I send him,” Alvarez said. “I sent him an iPod touch, toys and even clothes. He puts the clothes on and shows me.”

At least four times a week his parents can expect a call from him to talk about his day at work and even how cold it’s getting in New York. His call is illuminated on a big television screen in his parents’ house where cousins and other relatives can also come to speak with him. Sometimes the call can last as long as two hours.

Programs like Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Chat and Facebook Video Chat are also free and popular in Internet cafes.

“About 60 percent of the people who come here do video chat,” said Teresa Abrahamson, owner of Arroba Computers Internet café and repair shop who also speaks with her grandmother in Mexico via Skype four times a week.

The popularity of video chat in her store peaked in 2008, she said.

“People would come in and cry and fight. Some would even bring clothes and say to their family “do you think this will fit you?’ ” she said.

Since laptops and notebooks have become more affordable however, she said the customers are no longer as regular. Those who do, still make use of the video calls and chat services.

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