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Videoconferencing brings families together

Growing number of immigrants using videoconferencing to unite withfar-away relatives
Mario Melan stands up in front of the camera to show that he has managed to stay in shape while living in New York as he communicates with his family in Medellin, Colombia, at a video conferencing center in Bayshore, N.Y., earlier this month.
Mario Melan stands up in front of the camera to show that he has managed to stay in shape while living in New York as he communicates with his family in Medellin, Colombia, at a video conferencing center in Bayshore, N.Y., earlier this month.Jennifer Szymaszek / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For a moment, Marta Jaramillo-Ospina didn’t recognize the faces on the sleek, flat-screen TV. But the smiling, waving figures quickly brought a look of recognition, then surprise, then joy, to her face.

“Que lindo! Que lindo!” — How beautiful! — said a dazed Marta as her husband, Mario Melan, sat nearby in tears.

It was Marta’s daughter and son, whom she had last seen in Colombia four years ago. Also on the screen was Mario’s 5-year-old granddaughter, whom he had never seen.

The cross-continental family reunion — in Medellin, Colombia, and this Long Island town — was made possible through videoconferencing. Such technological meetings are a slowly growing, niche business in immigrant neighborhoods across the country thanks to savvy immigrant entrepreneurs who see economic opportunity in family bonds.

Fernando Rojas, a Colombia native who has lived in the United States for 25 years, opened a videoconferencing service in Bay Shore eight months ago after more than a year of planning and several years of dreaming. He has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to arrange facilities in the United States and several Spanish-speaking countries.

The cost of the sessions depends on the country the immigrants are trying to contact and the day of the week. Rojas charges about $80 an hour for Colombia on the weekends, $90 an hour for El Salvador on weekends and $120 an hour for Ecuador any day.

The bill goes to only one of the participating parties. In many cases, the biggest hassle for a family is gathering everyone at one of the cities where a videoconference center is located.

So far, with some 15 to 20 clients a week, Rojas is not making any profit. But he is ever optimistic, counting on Spanish-language print and local television ads to boost his business while word of mouth slowly spreads. He calls his videoconferencing service “Reach Out” or in Spanish, “A Tu Alcance.”

Industry analysts said there are no hard statistics on immigrants’ use of videoconferencing, but anecdotal reports indicate that the increasing affordability of the equipment has helped take the technology beyond corporate boardrooms, though for the most high-end services, the cost remains steep.

Many immigrants do use webcams and other video equipment at home, often turning to free video-chat services from major Internet companies like Yahoo Inc., but the lack of quality — not to mention lack of availability of computers in their relatives’ homes — are among reasons they are turning to such centers.

Harold German, marketing director for IVCi, said his videoconferencing company is getting an increasing number of inquiries from people such as Rojas about how to set up an intercontinental videoconferencing link.

“The hot areas are New York and California,” German said. “Really, it’s entrepreneurial immigrants who are contacting us from urban areas.”

The 43-year-old Rojas shares office space, equipment and clients with a network of similar entrepreneurs in other countries and the United States. While they compete, the service providers are finding that at this nascent stage, cooperation makes sense.

Besides Ecuador, Colombia, and El Salvador, Reach Out, through ownership and partnership, can connect to offices in Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Spain. Soon it will be able to reach Costa Rica.

Another videoconference provider, AmigoLatino, offers its U.S. services in such cities as San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles.

For many immigrants, videoconferencing is replacing the kinds of visits that might have been possible before tougher U.S. entrance and exit restrictions on foreigners took effect. Even legal immigrants often wait years to earn permanent residency and citizenship, unable or unwilling to go beyond U.S. borders for legal and financial reasons.

Consequently, videoconferencing “is a wave of technology that’s enabled immigrants to continue to play a more direct role in the lives of their families at home,” said Douglas Massey, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.

The family sessions that result are often as creative as they are emotional.

Birthdays, complete with cakes and drinks, are celebrated across the visual planes.

Rojas once had a just-married bride and groom arrive to show off the wedding dress and meet new family members. A three-way teleconference allowed family members from Colombia and Ecuador to meet one another, Rojas said.

“Most of the people who come here, they cry — I cry, too,” said Rojas, who records the sessions for clients. “We say we have happy customers because they all come out crying.”

Mario Melan heard about Reach Out through print ads and surprised his wife with the digital reunion.

After he wiped away his initial tears, Mario teased his son, Richard, whom he hadn’t seen since leaving Colombia six years ago, by calling him “gordo” — fat. And he took off his coat, stood up and flexed his muscles to make his relatives laugh.

The couple asked Marta’s daughter, Monica, how many boyfriends she had. Round-faced Monica, who sat next to her brother, David, held up four fingers, then four more, to howls on the U.S. side of the screen.

At one point, Mario asked little Valentina what his name was — “Como me llamo, yo?”
“Mario,” she said, sending the cute-meter soaring.