Portals Project Connects Cambridge Students with Refugees

Harvard Divinity School had a unique addition to its campus green this week: A metallic-gold shipping container equipped with immersive video technology, connecting Cambridge students with refugees from Iraq, Gaza City, Jordan, and Germany.

The Portals Project, launched by Amar C. Bakshi ’06, connects people across the world in life-sized video-conference conversations. Diane L. Moore, director of the Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project, partnered with the Portals Project to bring political refugees—virtually—to campus.

Moore said she was inspired to bring the portals to Cambridge after traveling to Iraq and asking how to further awareness of the country’s refugee crisis.

“They said, ‘Please just share our stories. We’re fearful that people don’t really know about what’s happening to us,’” Moore said.

The portals are free and open to the public, managed by full-time curators who organize and facilitate conversations between users.

Since the portals went up last week, Moore said that many from Harvard have gotten to speak with refugees. Just this week, Moore said, a Divinity School student and a 15-year-old Jordanian student connected while discussing music and their families.

The Jordanian student shared a song her family often sings. In response, Boley decided to share a song that was important to her grandmother, who recently passed away.

“She sang Ave Maria, and it was magical,” Moore said. “It was incredible to see that human connection about things that aren’t just about the challenges we face.”

Students from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School also visited the portal to speak with other high schoolers from the Middle East.

Elvira Horvei, a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School who entered the portal, said the experience was simultaneously normal and surreal.

“It was awkward at first, but then everything seemed really natural with all of us just having a normal conversation on commitment and relationships,” she said.

Moore said she hopes that these small moments of conversation will shape students’ views of global issues of migration and displacement.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to give a human face to the 65 million displaced persons in the world,” she said. “You can’t possibly know what that means.”

Bakshi, who founded the Portals Project, said he began it after traveling as a journalist and hearing stories about life outside the United States.

“To pass the time, I’d talk to strangers, and they would become deep conversations where we were lost in the world together,” Bakshi said.

The Divinity School portal will be open through Nov. 9.

—Staff writer Sonia Kim can be reached at sonia.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @soniakim211.

—Staff writer Jordan E. Virtue can be reached at jordan.virtue@thecrimson.com.

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