High-tech shipping container Portal links Harvard students, Gaza youth

Shannon Boley (left) and Dorie Goehring are curators of the Portal installation at Harvard Divinity School.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Shannon Boley (left) and Dorie Goehring are curators of the Portal installation at Harvard Divinity School.

CAMBRIDGE — In a cozy space on Harvard’s campus, a small group of students sat down Sunday morning facing another cluster of young people and chatted about TV, music, and sports.

Their conversation was casual, even ordinary. It hardly mattered that the groups were roughly 5,500 miles apart.

On one side of the conversation were five members of the Middle East Refugee Service Initiative, a student organization at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government that connects Arabic-speaking students with newly resettled refugees in Greater Boston. On the other, young people in Gaza City, a Palestinian metropolis.


Introducing themselves in English, the students in Cambridge learned that all but one of the Palestinians were 21. Rosi Greenberg, a Kennedy School student from Philadelphia, responded with a common Arabic expression meaning “May you live a long time.”

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When the Palestinians realized that the Harvard students spoke Arabic, “all of a sudden, they were like, ‘Whoa!’ ” Greenberg said. “There was kind of a spark, and a joy.”

From there, the conversation continued mostly in Arabic, as they discussed popular American exports such as “Game of Thrones.”

“They were more up to speed on shows than some of us were,” said Ziad Reslan, 31, a Kennedy School student from Lebanon.

Conversations like this one are made possible by Portals, spaces that use live video and large screens to connect people around the world for exploring shared interests, working on projects, practicing language skills, or doing just about anything people can do in the same room.

From left: Safwan Amin, Ziad Reslan, Jake, Rosi Greenberg, and Kim Quarantello took a photo with students in Gaza.

Because when people step into a Portal, they feel very much like they are in the same room.

“The goal of this is to create a space that people can use to build their own experiences and create their own meaning, with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet,” said Amar Bakshi, 33, the founder of Shared_Studios, the art and technology collective that developed Portals.

In a Portal — usually an adapted shipping container painted a striking gold on the outside — people on the other end of the connection appear on a rear wall, life-size and in real time.

Video cameras are embedded in the screen so participants see each other much as they would in the same space; it even feels possible to make eye contact.

The first Portal opened in December 2014 as a public art project connecting New York and Tehran. People were supposed to enter one at a time and talk for 10 minutes about what would make their day happy, but some stayed for hours, Bakshi said.


“They came out giddy and weeping,” he said. “People then came back and said, ‘I want to create a dance,’ ‘I want to bring my grandmother, who hasn’t been to Iran in 60 years,’ ‘I want to practice Farsi.’ ”

Since then, Portals have expanded to 30 sites from Brooklyn, N.Y., where Shared_Studios is based, to countries including Kazakhstan, Mexico, Rwanda, Australia, and Myanmar. Most are permanently placed, often through partnerships with universities and other institutions, and many more are in the works.

The conversation at Harvard on Sunday was full of laughter and warmth, despite the participants’ geographic distance and disparate backgrounds. If an observer squinted a little, it might have been any gathering of students getting to know each other.

“I was surprised by how informal and how casual and natural the conversation was immediately,” said Kim Quarantello, 27, a graduate student at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies from Ridgefield, Conn. “We immediately started talking about TV, and social media, and where we were all from, which was really nice.”

Portals exist in part to foster such cross-cultural connections, and their ability to do so is one of the reasons Harvard Divinity School invited Shared_Studios to put a Portal on campus, according to Diane L. Moore, director of the school’s Religious Literacy Project and the organizer behind the effort to bring the Portal to Harvard.

“We’re eager to give the people on our end a deeper context about the refugee crisis itself and a context for the particular challenges that people have faced in terms of their migrations,” Moore said.

The Portal arrived at the divinity school Saturday and will be there through Thursday, to help connect local students and others with refugees from the Middle East and hear firsthand their personal experiences in the war-torn region.

“The stories are less about help directly,” Moore said. “I think it’s more about a consciousness and potentially, I think in the long term, a political and humanitarian understanding of the interconnections of the world and the nature of decisions that we make here in the United States around things that are happening in Middle East have profound human consequences.”

On Monday, a group of students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School plan to visit the Portal, and on Tuesday it will host a poetry discussion. Other time slots are available through an online registry.

After it leaves Harvard, the Portal will travel to Boston College, and then to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston later this month.

Already, it has made an impact. As the Harvard students and the Palestinians ended their conversation Sunday morning, they made plans to connect on social media and stood to take selfies with the new friends projected on the wall behind them.

Afterward, they recalled the Palestinians’ warmth.

“They made us comfortable,” Reslan said, “not the other way around.”

“They were very welcoming,” Quarantello added. “I felt like I was walking into their living room.”

Students in Gaza took a selfie with Harvard students.

Cristela Guerra of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.