Golden portal builds new connections across the globe

Refugees trying to lead normal lives despite threat of Islamic State group

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MISSION, Texas – Just a few miles away from the Mexican border in Mission, Texas, the Center for Education and Economic Development houses a golden shipping container waiting to transport visitors across the globe.

“It gets them to get that experience that you normally get from traveling or from going to college in a different state right here. And, like, (it’s) very accessible,” said Cristina Garza, program director of the Mission Economic Development Corporation.

Portals: A Project by Shared Studios lets visitors speak with people in even the most remote areas around the globe. Many of the other portals are located in the U.S. and in countries such as Germany, Honduras, Cuba, Rwanda and Jordan, among others. The Mission portal is the only one in Texas. To view a list of the portal locations, click here.

When you walk into the portal, you're immediately faced with a large screen that projects a real-time image of a person in a different part of the world. A small camera in the center of the screen captures you and transmits the image directly to the other person. The experience is supposed to emulate a real-life conversation between you and a stranger.

Garza said the portal helps build bonds beyond borders.

“Anytime we get teenagers there, or kids into the portal, it’s amazing because they’re so unfiltered and they’re really funny and they’re so curious,” Garza said. “And they’re not afraid to ask questions. At first, they are, so one of my favorite moments is seeing them come out of their shell.”

The portal was launched in March for the South Texas Ideas Festival and will remain in place for a year. It is also used for educational purposes in the community.

“We’ll have really exciting summer programming coming up," Garza said. "We’re going to have other schools coming in and doing field trips, so we hope that more people use it, especially as the fall gets here."

Riad, a 20-year-old refugee from Mosul who lives at the Harsham camp in Erbil, Iraq, wants people to know he’s trying to lead a normal life, despite the threat of the Islamic State group nearby.

“At morning, I go to school. After that, I go to my job. If I finish it early, I come to the portal to talk to some people and also go with my friends,” Riad said.

Garza said the portal is unlike any other. It captures the emotions of curious visitors who end up leaving with more than just a new friend.

“At first, the portal can be very intimidating because, you know, there’s nowhere to hide. When you walk in, the camera catches the entirety of the room and you’re seeing the entirety of the other room in front of you. It’s a full body camera, and, you know, that can make people clamp up and get shy,” she said.

Riad gave up the life he knew in Mosul to escape terrorism. The change was drastic and left his family living in close quarters.

“When we came to this camp in 2014, we were living in (a) small tent. … The area of this tent was about 3 by 4 meters. I was living with my family. We are four people, and all of us are living in one tent. It is very hot, and in the winter, it is very cold. It is very easy (to catch) fire because it is created from the oil.” Riad said. “We lost our homes. We lost our relatives. And our life (has been) very hard.”

Tents are usually made from synthetic fabrics derived from petroleum, though they are also usually treated with flame retardant.

Riad said the portal project has changed his perception of Americans, and he has built bonds halfway across the world.

“Before 2003, we didn’t know what American people are; what’s United States. In 2003, when the U.S. Army came to Iraq, we withstood them and we had the idea that all of the American people are not good; they are attacking us,” Riad said. “But in 2014, after the war with ISIS, when we came to this camp, after we see the portal, our ideas (have) changed, because we knew now that the American people, they are good people. They are very friendly. They are kind. They are caring about us and about all the people in the world. They are trying to make the peace with all people. And they are thinking about us all the time.”

Riad’s plan for the future is to finish his studies and get a job. He eventually wants to try to go back to Mosul, but if it’s not possible to return, he will find a new home outside of Iraq. He said he would like to live in the U.S.

“The United States is a very big country. It’s a very good country. It’s safe. The people are supporting education. They are supporting jobs. They are supporting any good ideas,” he said.

The portal experience creates a way to learn about new cultures and meet friendly faces, even though they may be thousands of miles away.

“Where else do you get to see young people express who they are and learn about other people, other than the portal?” Garza said.

For now, the portal project is scheduled to be in Mission until next March, opening up a new world to those who seek it.

To schedule a visit or to view times the portal is open, click here.


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