“That was amazing,” Bernadine Harris said as she stepped out of the shipping container covered in gold paint.
Moments before, she was speaking live to an Iraqi refugee standing in front of her — on a large video screen.
“What we’re seeing over here on the news, I had the opportunity of actually talking to someone who’s experiencing this,” Harris said.
And that’s the goal of the Portals Project, which connects parts of the world through a network of shipping containers outfitted with video conferencing equipment.
“To connect people who wouldn’t otherwise meet,” said Amar Bakshi, who started the project in 2014 with boxes connecting New York and Iran.
“This is a time when people see each other as ‘types’ too often,” Bakshi said. “This adds a level of depth that can break up those hardened narratives.”
It’s more than a glorified use of Skype, he pointed out. The floor-to-ceiling screen inside the dimly-lit container gives users the feeling they’re talking to someone in the same room.
A card on a message board next to the box reads “This is better than Facebook!”
Ari Saperstein agreed. He heard about the Portals Project and came from Hollywood to try it out.
“I know I’m at fault for not exposing myself to people who are different from me and have different points of view,” Saperstein said.
When he steps into the box, he introduces himself to a 19-year-old man named Rahmi, sitting in a portal inside a refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq.
“How did you learn English so well?” Ari asks.
“From going to school and listening to American music,” Rahmi says.
Ari’s face lights up: “Like what?”
“Rap, and Justin Bieber,” Rahmi replies.
It was a moment of culture shock for Ari. “I think I’ll go home and listen to a little Justin Bieber in a new light now.”
After nearly a half-hour, the conversation led to a potential friendship as the two exchanged Facebook and Instagram information.
“I was really grateful,” Ari said of his portal experience. “It helps you grow and talk to people who can share new experiences with you.”
There are 24 permanent portals around the world, from Afghanistan to Germany, Mexico to Milwaukee.
Bakshi said his group is getting calls from people all over the world wanting their own portals. The cost of the project is offset by payments from US and European locations that can afford the staff and technology — for instance, the city of Los Angeles, which paid to have the portal for two weeks this month. Money from those locations is used to set up free portals in underprivileged parts of the world.
In Irbil, for example, the Portals Project funds the portal with assistance from UNICEF, Bakshi said. It serves 2,000 refugees at the camp and has a full-time curator who can translate individual conversations and organize recurring events.
In all, the portals are available to 10,000 refugees in Irbil, Berlin, Gaza City and Amman, Jordan.
“We are working to expand to six more refugee sites this year,” Bakshi said. “There are plans to put one inside a prison … and outside of a hospital in Liberia.”
Bakshi says the idea came from his days as a foreign journalist. When he returned to the United States and left journalism, he realized he missed the conversations he once had with strangers all over the world.
Then his grandmother told him she always regretted never re-engaging with the Pakistani homeland she fled in 1947.
“Even though the technology is at our fingertips there was no moment with which she could have just walked in, shared tea and just re-engaged a country she had fled all those years later,” Bakshi said.
She died in 2014. That same year, Bakshi started the Portals Project.
The shipping containers themselves have evolved from clunky spaces to house technology to near-empty boxes with only a screen on the wall. The leftover space allowed musicians and artists to enter the portals to share their work.
“We have people making a rap album in 15 countries, now being produced out of Milwaukee,” Bakshi said. “And kids in Mexico City have regular classes with kids in Burma.”
Milwaukee is one of four permanent locations in the United States (Baltimore, Chicago and Brooklyn are the others), with temporary installations coming to Detroit in May and San Francisco in June.
In Los Angeles, city officials said the two-week run there attracted them because it tapped into the global makeup of the city.
“Normally we’re connecting Angelenos to other Angelenos,” said Julia Diamond, Grand Park’s director of programming. “But this was a way to connect them to the world.”
Bernadine Harris was one of the first Angelenos to use the portal. As she wrapped up her conversation with an Iraqi refugee, she was determined to make a difference through her words.
“I told him, ‘God or Allah is good’,” she said. “‘You’re in our prayers and know that we’re concerned about you.'”
It appeared to work, she said. “He was smiling and jubilant and said ‘thank you so much.'”